Chagall’s Circus: A Kaleidoscope of Color and Movement

Marc Chagal, Le Grand Cirque, 1956, Oil on canvas, Private Collection

Marc Chagall, celebrated for his enchanting and dreamlike artworks, took an extraordinary leap into the vibrant world of the circus, creating a series of masterpieces that transcend the boundaries between reality and fantasy. Through his unique lens, Chagall captured the spirit, energy, and magic of the circus, creating a visual symphony that continues to captivate art enthusiasts worldwide.

The Circus as Inspiration

Chagall’s fascination with the circus was deeply rooted in his personal history. Born in Russia in 1887, he spent his early years surrounded by the lively performances of traveling circuses that visited his hometown. These childhood memories served as a wellspring of inspiration, fueling Chagall’s later artistic exploration of the circus theme.

Marc Chagal, The Horse Rider 1949-53 Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

A Kaleidoscope of Color

Chagall’s circus paintings are characterized by a riot of colors that dance across the canvas. His unique use of bold, vivid hues creates a sense of whimsy and fantasy, transporting viewers into a realm where gravity seems optional, and reality takes on a dreamlike quality. The circus performers, animals, and acrobats become characters in a fantastical narrative.

The Blue Circus 1950 Marc Chagall 1887-1985 Presented by the artist 1953 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N06136

Acrobats in Flight: Defying Gravity

One of the recurring motifs in Chagall’s circus series is the depiction of acrobats soaring through the air. These gravity-defying figures embody a sense of liberation and transcendence, reflecting Chagall’s belief in the power of art to elevate the human spirit. The fluidity of movement and the harmony between performers evoke a sense of joy and celebration.

Circus Animals: Symbolism and Whimsy

Chagall’s circus menagerie includes a cast of whimsical animals, from prancing horses to winged creatures. These animals are not mere spectators but active participants in the circus spectacle. Through his imaginative lens, Chagall imbues the animals with symbolic meaning, inviting viewers to interpret their roles within the intricate tapestry of the circus.

Love and Romance Under the Big Top

The circus, for Chagall, became a metaphor for love and romance. His paintings often feature amorous couples suspended in mid-air, locked in a tender embrace. These depictions go beyond the physical acts of the circus and delve into the emotional and poetic dimensions of human connection, echoing Chagall’s belief in the transformative power of love.

Chagall’s Unique Artistic Language

Chagall’s circus series showcases his distinctive artistic language, blending elements of Cubism, Fauvism, and Surrealism. His ability to merge diverse styles creates a visual vocabulary that is uniquely his own. The dreamy, fantastical quality of his circus paintings reflects not only the artist’s personal experiences but also his profound optimism and belief in the transcendent nature of art.

Enduring Legacy and Contemporary Impact

Decades after Chagall’s exploration of the circus theme, his works continue to resonate with contemporary audiences. The timeless allure of the circus, coupled with Chagall’s imaginative interpretations, ensures that these paintings remain a source of inspiration and wonder. Exhibitions featuring Chagall’s circus series draw crowds eager to experience the magic and emotion encapsulated within his canvases.

Marc Chagal, Circus Horse 1964

Conclusion: Chagall’s Circus – A Visual Feast

Marc Chagall’s circus series stands as a testament to the artist’s ability to transform ordinary subjects into extraordinary realms of imagination. Through a kaleidoscope of color, movement, and symbolism, Chagall invites viewers to step into a world where the boundaries between reality and fantasy dissolve. The circus, in Chagall’s hands, becomes a visual feast that transcends time, offering a perpetual celebration of the human spirit and the boundless possibilities of artistic expression.

Frank Bostock’s Menagerie: Roaming Marvels and Exotic Wonders

In the colorful tapestry of entertainment history, Frank Bostock’s menagerie stands out as a fascinating chapter that brought the exotic wonders of the animal kingdom to the doorsteps of audiences. Born in 1866, Frank Bostock was a showman and menagerist who created a traveling spectacle that captivated the imaginations of people across continents.

Bostock’s journey into the world of menageries began at a young age. His fascination with animals and a keen sense of showmanship led him to establish his own menagerie, showcasing a diverse collection of creatures from every corner of the globe. Bostock’s vision was not just about displaying exotic animals but creating an immersive experience that transported spectators to far-off lands.

The Travelling Menagerie: A Moving Marvel

What set Bostock apart was his mobile menagerie – a traveling caravan of wonders that brought the allure of the wild to both urban centers and rural areas. From lions and tigers to elephants and exotic birds, the menagerie featured a breathtaking array of creatures. This traveling spectacle became a cultural phenomenon, providing a taste of the exotic to audiences who might never have the chance to see such animals otherwise.

Educational and Entertaining: A Dual Purpose

Bostock’s menagerie wasn’t merely about entertainment; it also served an educational purpose. His shows often included informative talks about the habits, habitats, and characteristics of the animals on display. Bostock sought to cultivate a sense of wonder and respect for the natural world, fostering a connection between people and the creatures that shared the planet.

Royal Connections and International Success

Bostock’s menagerie gained royal approval when he presented his traveling show to King Edward VII, further solidifying its prestige. Beyond the shores of England, Bostock expanded his menagerie empire internationally. The success of his shows in the United States and Australia attested to the universal appeal of his carefully curated exhibits.

Challenges and Controversies

Running a traveling menagerie posed numerous challenges. Animal welfare concerns were raised, and Bostock faced criticism for the conditions in which the animals were kept. However, it’s important to contextualize these issues within the historical understanding of animal care during the time. Bostock, in his era, was at the forefront of popularizing and showcasing wildlife.

Legacy and Influence

Frank Bostock’s menagerie left an indelible mark on the history of entertainment. His innovative approach to combining education with spectacle laid the groundwork for future zoos and wildlife exhibitions. The legacy of Bostock’s menagerie endures in the collective memory of those who experienced the thrill of encountering exotic animals in the midst of their everyday lives.

Conclusion: A Wild Ride Through Time

In the grand tapestry of showmanship, Frank Bostock’s menagerie remains a vivid thread that weaves together the realms of entertainment, education, and wildlife appreciation. Bostock’s traveling spectacle brought the wild to the urban and rural landscapes, leaving an imprint on the cultural fabric of the times. While the methods and ethical standards of animal exhibitions have evolved, Bostock’s menagerie remains a fascinating chapter in the history of human fascination with the wonders of the animal kingdom.

Dwarfism as depicted in European art from the 17th century to the early 20th centuries in Europe

As a subject area, dwarfs were referred to as Midgets whenever they appeaed in newspapers advertising etc. The term “midgets” is considered outdated and offensive today. It’s more appropriate to use terms like “dwarf” or “little people.” That being said, historically, individuals with dwarfism were sometimes employed as court jesters or entertainers in various European royal courts. These individuals were often part of performances and events that amused the royal families and their guests. Later, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries, participants were referred often as Midgets, as the above photographs show.

In art, the representation of individuals with dwarfism has been both historical and symbolic. Portraits and paintings from different periods may depict court jesters or dwarfs as a reflection of societal attitudes and norms at the time. These depictions could serve various purposes, such as entertainment, curiosity, or emphasizing social hierarchies.

The above card shows the Royal Hungarian Midgets circa 1910. A fairly obscure musical entertainment act headed by ‘Prince Andru’, alledgedly the world’s smallest man, traveling with a small group of dwarfs. Prince Andru apparently stood twenty-seven inches tall, weighed thirty-two pounds and was in his early twenties. The dwarfs perform in a beautiful well- lighted, airy miniature canopy erected on a stage, presenting a high-class program of vaudeville acts with musical numbers.

Whether this group of musicians were forced to do this to survive is not known, but it is possible in late Victorian England they would be seen as a speciality or novelty act. The Times newspaper in December 1913 recorded a dispute that was taken to law at Bow Streeet Court:

Although they had not been singled out for loss of earnings, it must have been disheartening to be considered not worthy of a full day’s pay!

There is a long history of the depiction of dwarfs in Court paintings, especially in Spain. Diego Velázquez, the prominent court painter to the King Philip IV during the 17th century.

Velázquez depicted a court dwarf in the service of King Philip IV of Spain. The title of the painting is commonly referred to as “Portrait of Sebastián de Morra,” although the actual identity of the sitter has been a subject of debate among art historians.

The painting is thought to have been created around 1645 during Velázquez’s second trip to Italy, where he was exposed to various artistic influences. Sebastián de Morra, the subject of the portrait, was a member of the court entourage and was likely employed for the amusement of the royal court. In the painting, Velázquez presents a sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of the dwarf.

One notable aspect of Velázquez’s treatment of the subject is the dignified and humanizing way in which he depicts Sebastián de Morra. Instead of relying on the typical conventions of the time that often sensationalized or exoticized dwarfs, Velázquez presents his subject with a sense of humanity, capturing his individuality and character.

The dwarf is portrayed in a relatively simple setting, emphasizing the direct gaze and engaging expression of Sebastián de Morra. Velázquez pays careful attention to details, such as the rendering of fabrics and textures in the clothing, showcasing his mastery of technique.

The portrait is characterized by its psychological depth and the artist’s ability to convey the humanity of the sitter. Velázquez was a master of capturing the personality and essence of his subjects, regardless of their social status or physical appearance.

“Portrait of Sebastián de Morra” is part of Velázquez’s larger body of work, which includes numerous portraits of the Spanish royal family and court members. It stands as a testament to Velázquez’s skill in portraiture and his ability to transcend the conventions of his time to create empathetic and humane representations of diverse individuals.

Harold Pyott, ‘The English Midget’ was another 19th century performer. According to the HeywoodHistory.com:

‘He was born in Stockport in September 1887 to Isaac and Harriet Pyott, who were both of average height, as were his two sisters. His parents died when he was 12 and he was placed under the care of his uncle, who took him to the local doctor for examination. Harold was found to be ‘normal’ in every way except size and weight. It was reported that he was visited by some of the most eminent doctors in Europe, who declared that he had a ‘strong and healthy constitution, but was certainly the smallest human being they had ever seen’.

Harold then lived at the Edinburgh home of his cousin William Beeley, who became his manager. William is listed in various records as working for the Post Office in both Edinburgh and Stockport. The exhibiting of short-statured people and midgets had been popularised by P.T. Barnum with the famous Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton). Barnum’s novelty act arrived in England in 1844 and Stratton became one the most highly paid and famous performers of the Victorian era. Many similar acts followed, including ‘Major Mite’, ‘Anita the Living Doll’ and of course Harold Pyott, who was billed as the ‘world’s smallest man’ and variously known as ‘Tiny Tim’, the ‘The English Midget’, the ‘English Tom Thumb’, or the ‘Living Doll’.

Harold travelled to various pantomimes and circus sideshows around Britain, Europe and South Africa for 35 years, and he performed before royalty on several occasions. Part of his act involved being carried around on the palm of a man’s hand and sitting in a top hat.’

Wild Beasts on the London Stage

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the use of wild animals in London theatres was a common and sensational practice. The use of animals, often exotic and dangerous, added an element of spectacle and excitement to theatrical performances. These displays were known as “animal acts” and were popular attractions in a variety of entertainment venues, including theatres, circuses, and menageries.

Wild animal acts in London theatres were diverse and ranged from dramatic reenactments of exotic scenes to more dangerous displays featuring trained animals. These performances could include scenes depicting jungle hunts, battles between humans and animals, or simply showcasing the exotic nature of the creatures. These acts were often included as part of larger theatrical productions or as stand-alone attractions between acts.

The animals used in these acts were sourced from around the world, and their presence in the city was a testament to the colonial and imperial interests of the time. However, the conditions in which these animals were kept and the treatment they received were often inhumane. Many animals suffered due to inadequate care, confinement, and the stress of performing in unnatural environments.

As public attitudes towards animal welfare began to shift during the late 19th century, concerns about the treatment of animals in entertainment grew. Activists advocated for better conditions and raised awareness about the ethical concerns associated with using wild animals in performances. Eventually, legal regulations and changing societal values led to the decline of such practices in theatres.

Overall, the use of wild animals in London theatres during the 18th and 19th centuries reflects a complex blend of curiosity, entertainment, and exploitation. It’s a historical reminder of how attitudes towards animals and entertainment have evolved over time.

Isaacs A Van Amburgh, the Aminal Trainer

Isaac A. Van Amburgh was a 19th-century American entertainer known for his performances with wild animals, particularly lions and tigers. He gained fame for his daring and often controversial acts in which he interacted closely with these dangerous animals in front of live audiences.

Isaac van Amburgh and his Animals Inscribed 1839

Oil on canvas | 113.7 x 174.8 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 406346, Royal Collection

Van Amburgh’s performances were a precursor to the modern concept of animal training and the use of exotic animals in entertainment. He would enter cages with ferocious animals, often using a combination of fear, dominance, and conditioning to control them during his acts. His feats included putting his head inside a lion’s mouth, commanding multiple lions and tigers at once, and engaging in mock battles with them.

While he was praised for his audacity and showmanship, there was also criticism and concern about the treatment of the animals in his care. Many animal rights advocates and observers questioned the ethics of subjecting these creatures to potentially harmful and stressful situations for the sake of entertainment.

Van Amburgh’s popularity waned in the latter half of the 19th century as public sentiment shifted towards more humane treatment of animals. His performances are remembered as a reflection of the attitudes and entertainment preferences of his time, as well as a catalyst for discussions about the treatment of animals in captivity.

The Exeter ‘Change’ in The Strand, London

The Exeter Exchange, also known as Exeter Change, was a building in London that housed a menagerie, or collection of exotic animals, during the 19th century. It was located on the Strand and operated from the late 1700s until the mid-1800s. The menagerie at Exeter Change was a popular attraction for Londoners, showcasing a variety of animals including lions, tigers, monkeys, birds, and other exotic creatures.

However, the conditions for the animals at Exeter Change were often poor, with small and cramped cages that did not provide proper care or space for the animals. This led to concerns about animal welfare, and eventually, public sentiment turned against the menagerie. Animal rights activists, including figures like William Wilberforce, campaigned for the closure of Exeter Change due to the inhumane treatment of the animals.

In 1826, the menagerie was finally closed down, and the building was later demolished. The closure of Exeter Change marked a turning point in public attitudes towards the treatment of animals and contributed to the growing movement for animal welfare and rights. The change was on the current site of The Strand Palace Hotel.

Menageries at International Exhibitions in the nineteenth century

Victorian Menageries at Exhibitions

During the Victorian era (1837-1901), exhibitions were a popular form of entertainment and education for the public. These exhibitions showcased various aspects of science, industry, art, and culture, attracting large crowds eager to witness new and exotic discoveries from around the world. One fascinating and recurring attraction at these exhibitions were menageries.

Menageries were collections of live, exotic animals from different parts of the globe, displayed for the public’s amusement and curiosity. They were essentially traveling zoos that brought together a wide variety of creatures that most people in the Victorian era would never have had the chance to see otherwise. Menageries at Victorian exhibitions often included exotic mammals, birds, reptiles, and sometimes even marine life.

Here are some key aspects of menageries that attended Victorian exhibitions:

  1. Diversity of animals: Menageries boasted an impressive diversity of species, ranging from large elephants, lions, and tigers to colorful birds, monkeys, and reptiles. These collections were often gathered from different continents, representing the wonders of the natural world.
  2. Sensationalism and entertainment: Menageries were meant to be captivating and awe-inspiring. They appealed to the public’s fascination with the exotic and unknown, and many people attended these exhibitions to marvel at the spectacle of these rare and wild creatures.
  3. Educational aspects: While the primary goal of menageries was entertainment, they also served an educational purpose. Victorians saw these displays as opportunities to learn about the natural world and expand their knowledge of geography, biology, and wildlife.
  4. Ethical concerns: While many Victorians found menageries thrilling, they also raised ethical questions about the treatment of the animals. Living conditions in these early zoos were often inadequate, and animals were sometimes subjected to unhealthy environments and mistreatment.
  5. Influence on society: Menageries and exhibitions played a role in shaping public perceptions and attitudes towards animals and the natural world. They contributed to the development of zoology as a scientific discipline and fostered a growing interest in conservation and animal welfare.
  6. Legacy and evolution: The concept of menageries continued to evolve over time, leading to the establishment of more modern zoological parks and sanctuaries. These places shifted their focus towards conservation, education, and the overall well-being of animals, moving away from the purely spectacle-oriented approach of Victorian menageries.

One of the most famous examples of a Victorian-era exhibition featuring a menagerie was “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” held in London in 1851. This event showcased a wide range of exhibits, including a menagerie featuring live animals from different parts of the world. The inclusion of menageries in such exhibitions was a testament to the allure of exotic wildlife and the thirst for knowledge and adventure that defined the Victorian era.

https://tcr9i.chat.openai.com/v2/1.5.2/enforcement.64b3a4e29686f93d52816249ecbf9857.html#35536E1E-65B4-4D96-9D97-6ADB7EFF8147

Travelling Menageries and our Colonial Past

The travelling menagerie, which refers to the practice of showcasing exotic animals in traveling shows and circuses, can be understood in the context of imperialism and its association with Great Britain during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The menageries were closely tied to the imperial ambitions of Britain and other European powers during this period. Here are some key points to consider:

Zamah ‘King of Wild Animal Trainers’ Gale and Polden postcard, undated
  1. Imperialism and Exploration: During the height of imperialism, European powers sought to expand their influence and control over vast territories across the globe. Explorers and colonialists ventured into newly acquired territories, discovering and capturing exotic animals they encountered. These animals were brought back to Europe and showcased in travelling menageries as symbols of the empire’s conquests and the exotic lands under their dominion.
  2. Colonial Trade and Exploitation: The establishment of British colonies around the world created networks of trade and exploitation. The capture and transportation of exotic animals were part of this colonial enterprise. These animals were often taken from their natural habitats, sometimes under cruel conditions, and transported long distances to be displayed in Europe. This practice exemplified the exploitation of natural resources and living creatures that was prevalent during the era of imperialism.
  3. Representation of Dominance: The exhibition of exotic animals in travelling menageries served as a display of the British Empire’s dominance and power over foreign lands and peoples. The menageries presented a visual spectacle for the British public, reinforcing the idea of Britain’s superiority over the territories it had colonized.
  4. Cultural Othering and Racism: The showcasing of exotic animals also contributed to the “othering” of non-European cultures. It perpetuated a sense of Western superiority over the “exotic” and “primitive” cultures from which the animals came. This same mindset was applied to indigenous peoples in the colonies, as they were often portrayed as inferior and in need of European guidance and control.
  5. Public Entertainment and Education: Travelling menageries were not only about imperialism and power; they also served as popular forms of entertainment for the British public. People flocked to see these exotic creatures, as many had never encountered such animals before. These exhibitions fed into a growing fascination with the exotic and unknown, contributing to the development of Victorian-era curiosity and interest in the natural world.
  6. Ethical Concerns and Conservation: As attitudes toward animal welfare and conservation evolved over time, the ethics of keeping animals in captivity and displaying them for human entertainment were increasingly questioned. Modern sensibilities recognize the harm caused to both animals and their ecosystems by the practice of capturing and displaying them in menageries.

In conclusion, the travelling menagerie can be seen as a manifestation of British imperialism during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a practice closely tied to the exploration, exploitation, and display of the empire’s conquests, showcasing the exotic and wild aspects of lands under British control. Today, the historical context of the travelling menagerie serves as a reminder of the complexities and consequences of imperialist endeavors and the changing attitudes toward animal welfare and conservation.

Have you seen my dead elephant?

Wessex Archaelogy are to look for a dead elephant near Kingswood, Bristol. Here’s The Observer link to the report.

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2023/jul/02/archaeologists-hunt-for-burial-site-of-famous-19th-century-elephant-in-gloucestershire

I have doubts they will find much other than bones. Bones with lots of ‘hacks’ on them. At £400 a time the late Victorian menagerist, EH Bostock (or in this case his brother in law Frank Bostock (Little Frank*)), would have extracted as much of the meat from the bones to feed to the other beasts in the menagerie.

However, if they do find anything of the elephant, then the forensics would be interesting. The pit would, of course be large and easy to spot methinks!

Psst! There’s an elephant buried on the banks of The Clyde River. Don’t tell anyone.

There’s one buried at Smithfields market too!

*Not to be confused with E H’s brother Frank (Big Frank)

hattip to Heather for these reliable facts.