Monday, December 19, 2005
Renoir: Jugglers at the Circus Fernando
Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted Jugglers at the Circus Fernando in 1878-1879. The painting portrays two pre-pubescent girls who have just completed their juggling performance in a circus. One girl acknowledges the audience’s response to their act, while the other girl stares into space, seemingly, in a moment of introspection. The audience is mentioned partially, yet significantly, at the top of the painting. Renoir created this scene to make a statement of our inevitable transformation from the innocence of childhood to the reality of adulthood.
Renoir was born in Limoges, France in 1841 and grew up in a middle class environment. He developed his artistic ability as a painter of porcelain, beginning at the age of 13. This had a lasting influence on his art. It also gave him an appreciation of eighteenth century Rococo artists. This experience and influence directed his handling of color, which led to the brilliance and luminosity of color in his later works. Renoir liked to paint thinly over pale grounds, allowing the grounds to “glow” through, enhancing the color.
When Renoir entered his career as an artist, he became friends with Claude Monet and other artists of the mid nineteenth century. It is with some of these artists, and their influence, with their struggle to be accepted by the Salon, Renoir helped define the Impressionistic style in the 1870’s. Renoir’s subjects during this time followed the typical philosophy of the Impressionists – middle class life in Paris, valuing single chance occurrences, such as how light reflects off an object in a given moment. Renoir also made observations of theatre and circus life, like Degas. It is this aspect of Impressionism that produced the painting discussed in this essay. Although the Impressionist movement was thought to be a radical construction at the time, Renoir “did not want to be a revolutionary”. He wished to paint beauty to show “a life of happiness and harmony”. After a career of almost 60 years and having painted about 6,000 paintings, Pierre-Auguste Renoir died in 1919.
Renoir painted Jugglers at the Circus Fernando in oil on canvas. The dimensions of the painting are 51 ¾ inches tall by 39 1/8 inches wide. The recreational subject matter - the circus - the free flowing, textured brush strokes, the bright color paint, the cropping of elements of the depicted scene (the audience above, the orange below, the circus ring wall on both sides), and the intensity of the light all typify the style of this painting as Impressionism. With this beautifully painted moment of leisure, Renoir is able to describe a phase of human maturation common to all of us, and full of anguish for many; that is the metamorphosis from a child to an adult. The compositional elements in the painting support this premise.
The two girls portrayed are bathed in a consistent, ubiquitous, warm light, which does not create many drastic shadows – everything in this area of the painting is “known”. This warmth is represented by the yellows, oranges and pinks Renoir chose to use to depict the girls’ forms and their primary background – the yellow circus floor. This elicits a feeling of security and innocence, which is inherent in the circumstances of a typical childhood. These girls are safe and protected as they reside in their youthful realm. The yellow ribbons in their hair tie back to the yellow hue of the circus floor to help anchor them in this proposed view of youth. Looming above them is the audience, which is painted in dark, cold colors, with haphazard and mysterious brushstrokes. The audience consists of adults whose features are not distinctly defined. The audience, presumably, extends beyond the edge of the painting, unseen, further enhancing its mysterious state. This is a world unknown to the jugglers and to the viewers, allowing the viewers to identify with the perspective of the girls.
While they reside in the same stage of development, and in the same spatial area on the canvas, each girl differs in her role within the painting. The girl on the left has begun her exploration of the adolescent stage of life on the road to adulthood. The girl on the right chooses to remain in the haven of childhood. Renoir uses a series of contrasts to separate each individual girl’s relationship to this transformation. One contrast is the body language of the girls themselves. The girl on the left is open to this idea of growth. Her arms are in the process of opening up as in a bow, acknowledging the audience’s response to their show. Her feet are separated, and she is looking outward, making direct eye contact with the audience. The girl on the right has her arms folded, holding the oranges, as if she is holding onto something precious, and at the same time, protecting herself. Her feet and legs are closed. Her eyes stare off into space at nothing in particular. This is a look of introspection; her mind is closed to outside influences. The direction of her gaze is in direct opposition to the point of eye contact her performing partner is making with the audience (personal note – this is one of my favorite aspects of this painting). She has her back turned against the existence of this strange and dark world.
Another contrast Renoir uses is light and dark values, accompanied with warm and cool colors and the girls differing interaction with these variations. The youthful innocence, inside the circus ring, where the girls reside, is painted with warm and light colors. The unknown reality of adulthood, the audience, is painted with dark cool colors. This contrast is enhanced by the differing brushstrokes between the two sides of the circus ring – tighter and detailed on the warm side, loose and undefined on the cool side. The girl on the right is enveloped in the light warm colors of the painting. The head of girl on the left, due to the open door in the circus ring, enters the dark cool background established by the audience, consequently, touching the audience on the two dimensional plane. This further supports the idea that she has begun this transformation. In addition to this, although Renoir has painted both girls using primarily warm colors, he enhanced each of their midsections with a cool blue. This coolness is associated with the cool darks of the audience, as if to say it is our emerging sexuality that is the conduit in the maturation process. I will address this notion later.
Renoir’s use of line is limited, yet significant, which parallels his use of the audience in the painting, although I don’t know if it was intentional. The most noticeable line is the curved horizontal depicting the top of the circus ring wall. This serves multiple purposes. Primarily, this line leads the view directly to the head of the girl on the left. This is an important part of the painting as it relates to the underlying statement, as this is where she physically enters the new and unknown. Renoir also uses this line to help frame the girl on the right, along with the right side of the painting, the bottom of the painting and the left hand girl. This encloses the girl on the right into the protective sanctuary of childhood, and within herself, further supporting the impression that she has not yet become aware the impending changes in her life, or is possibly ignoring them. The third purpose of the circus ring wall line is to separate the two contrasting worlds described in the painting.
Another prominent line is the one implied between the gaze of the girl on the left and the audience member in the upper left corner of the painting. He is pointing directly back to this girl, suggesting that he is acknowledging her awareness, and possibly encouraging her to explore further. This moment in the painting could be interpreted as a pedophilic remark, but I don’t know if that was Renoir’s intention. If that is the case, however, it would support the depravity suggested by the dark values and lurid brushstrokes Renoir chose to represent adulthood.
As the setting of Jugglers at the Circus Fernando is the circus, it would seem to follow that Renoir would use circle shapes as a distinct compositional element. The most abundant circles in the painting are the oranges. The girl on the right has collected them and clings to them. Four oranges on the ground around her feet encircle her, furthering the idea that she remains secure in the purity and perfection the image of a circle connotes. Renoir placed one orange at the left edge of the painting, in proximity to the girl on the left and isolated from the other oranges. This lone orange corresponds with the left girl’s departure from the security of childhood. The largest circle is the circus ring itself. This may represent the cyclical nature of life. We are only allowed to see one sectional arc of the circus ring, just like we are only viewing one portion of the human life cycle - the transformation into adulthood.
Earlier I mentioned the notion that Renoir may be suggesting in this painting that it is the emergence of our sexuality that facilitates our maturation. The reason I made that statement was due to a combination of the existence of the multiple occurrences of the triangle or “v” shape and its association with the cool color temperatures in certain areas of the painting. This “v” shape appears several times in the audience, manifested as the shape of necklines defined by their coats and shirts. This “v” shape also defines the groin or reproductive area of the girl on the right. The reproductive area of the girl on the left is also designated by Renoir’s use of the negative space between her lower legs leading the viewer’s eye into a slight line extending vertically. Renoir uses cool colors in this region on both girls’ bodies. As described above, Renoir also depicted the audience, or the adult world, with cool colors. The combination of these elements suggests a relationship between the girls’ sexuality and their inevitable course to maturity. Adding to that is the presence of one triangle shape at the top of the painting. This triangle is red, a color that is not used anywhere else in the audience. The red triangle is placed directly above the girl on the right and mimics the “v” shape on her midsection. It is as if this is a warning to her, and to the viewers, that she can try to remain in the comfortable shelter of youth, but her transmigration into this new dimension is unavoidable.
Like many of his works, Renoir painted Jugglers at the Circus Fernando in the Impressionistic style he helped create. He used his mastery of light and color to depict a Parisian scene of everyday life and leisure to make a statement above and beyond the forms and paint he used to create the work.