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Side Notes on the Sideshow


A visitor to the Seurat's Circus Sideshow exhibition peruses one of several vitrines displaying 19th-century books illustrating the French circus and parades, as well as color and aesthetic theory. Many of these books form part of the Met Libraries' permanent collections and constitute one of the largest set of loans provided by the libraries to a single Met exhibition.

While it is not uncommon for exhibitions here at The Met to include books from the Museum Libraries' collections, rarely do we have the opportunity to contribute as many books to a single exhibition (11!) as we have for Seurat's Circus Sideshow, which is on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through May 29. This delightful exhibition takes an in-depth look at Georges Seurat's haunting masterpiece by examining both the cultural context of the painting—19th-century French circus sideshows, called parades—and the artistic milieu within which Seurat was working and studying during his short but brilliant career.

Because so many books from Watson Library are featured in the exhibition, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to highlight a few of them and give you a peek behind the scenes at some of what it took to get them from the stacks to their temporary homes in the exhibition galleries.

Paris Illustre

Eugène Courboin, Fair at the Tuileries—Clowns and Saltimbanques, from Paris Illustré, August 26, 1883.

The image above and the one to the right below feature scenes of parades (described in the exhibition catalogue as "free entertainment put on outside [a traveling circus tent] to lure the passing crowd to purchase tickets and go in") from Paris Illustré, a lavishly illustrated monthly published in Paris from 1883 to about 1920. In most cases, the books chosen for display by Susan Alyson Stein, Engelhard Curator of 19th-Century European Painting, were already part of the libraries' collections; however we were lacking a few key issues of Paris Illustré. Holly Phillips, associate manager for collections in Watson Library, was able to identify a fine-art and antiques dealer in Paris who had the issues we needed (including the one above and one from July 1884, the theme of which is les fêtes foraines, or seasonal fairs), and we purchased them through funds generously donated by the Friends of Watson Library.

The image at left below is from Jean Grand-Carteret's Les Moeurs et la Caricature en France (Customs and Caricature in France) and has been in Watson Library's collection for some time thanks to a donation by Jane E. Andrews. The book, published in 1888, contains more than 500 French satirical illustrations dating back to the 16th century. The image depicted here uses the parade theme of the stage, the barker, and onlookers below to poke fun of "la situation politique en France (Novembre 1873)," according to the caption.

Circus illustrations

Left: Jean Grand-Carteret, Les Moeurs et la Caricature en France, 1888. Right: Eugène Grasset, The Sideshow (La Parade), from Paris Illustré, February 1, 1887.


Ogden Rood, Modern Chromatics: With Applications to Art and Industry, 1879.

Seurat was deeply interested in aesthetic and color theory, and studied these topics as a student and throughout his career. Columbia Professor Ogden Rood published Modern Chromatics: With Applications to Art and Industry in 1879, five years before Seurat began his most famous painting, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, and eight years before he began Circus Sideshow. The text for the exhibition label for this book (the title page and frontispiece of which are illustrated above) quotes the following passage from Rood's work, clearly reflected in Seurat's style now known as Pointillism but which Seurat called Divisionism:

Placing a quantity of small dots of two colors very near each other, and allowing them to be blended by the eye placed at the proper distance . . . is almost the only practical [method] at the disposal of the artist whereby he can actually mix, not pigments, but masses of colored light.

Below is a page from the Seurat's Circus Sideshow catalogue featuring entries for two different editions of Charles Blanc's Grammaire des Arts du Dessin, both long held in Watson Library and purchased with the Jacob S. Rogers Fund. This was another seminal text for Seurat, one which helped formulate his ideas on symmetry and harmony.

Exhibition catalog

Page 70 from the Seurat's Circus Sideshow exhibition catalogue, featuring illustrations from the 1870 edition (left) and the 1876 edition (right) of Charles Blanc's Grammaire des Arts du Dessin, both of which are held in Watson Library.

Before any book from the Museum Libraries' collections go on display at The Met or another institution, they are carefully reviewed, documented, cleaned, and (if necessary) repaired and rehoused by our talented book-conservation staff. This process usually begins months ahead of the exhibition's opening date. In the case of the Seurat show, most of the major work on the books was done throughout the summer and fall of 2016. Directly below is a photograph of the 1870 edition of Grammaire des Arts du Dessin undergoing major treatment last August: repairs were done to some of the paper and the signatures, and the book was rebound. Below that is a photo of conservator Sophia Kramer doing some final cleaning on Auguste Rafett's Album Lithographique, part of the collection of the Museum's Department of Drawings and Prints.

disbound book

The 1870 edition of Charles Blanc's Grammaire des Arts du Dessin undergoing treatment in our book-conservation lab last August in preparation for the exhibition

Book conservation

Book Conservator Sophia Kramer cleans Auguste Raffet's Album Lithographique (1835) in preparation for the exhibition

Book-conservation staff are also involved in every aspect of getting the books installed in the galleries prior to the exhibition opening. During the two-week exhibition installation process, conservators Yukari Hayashida and Andrijana Sajic placed the books in custom cradles built by the Museum's plexi shop, secured the pages flat, and carefully placed them in the vitrines.

Exhibiting books

Book conservators Yukari Hayashida and Andrijana Sajic install books in the galleries on January 31. The exhibition's seminal painting, Seurat's Circus Sideshow, would soon be hung on the wall behind them (left side photo; see also the banner photo at the top of this post).

We are thrilled to see so many of our books integrated into a single exhibition. They undoubtedly help round out the fascinating history of Seurat's enigmatic painting as well as the parades of 19th-century France. It was a pleasure working with so many people throughout the Museum to ensure the exhibition's success—especially Susan Stein and Laura Corey in the Department of European Paintings, and Dana Hart in Watson Library. We hope you have the opportunity to experience this alluring exhibition firsthand.


Museum visitors at the vitrine displaying books on 19th-century color and aesthetic theory, which Seurat had studied in depth throughout his career

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