Born into a noble family and disabled since childhood, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec turned away from his birthright and sought companionship and excitement in the bawdy nightlife of Paris, of which the Circus Fernando was a prime attraction. The Circus Fernando inspired a number of other French painters: Degas, Renoir, Seurat, and later Fernand Léger depicted the famous attraction. With its thin, rapid lines, Equestrienne (At the Circus Fernando) has the spontaneous quality of a drawing, connecting it with Toulouse-Lautrec’s involvement with graphic art.
The artist was also inspired by compositional aspects of Japanese prints and photography, interests apparent in this work: for example the center of the image is empty, and the picture is instead structured around the sweeping arc of the ring. This curve is repeated continually throughout the scene: in the powerful haunches of the circus horse, the ring and gallery, the billowing trousers of a clown at the top of the picture, and most prominently in the extraordinary aquiline profile of the ringmaster himself. This menacing figure is linked by the whip in his hand and by his penetrating gaze to the rider, who, from her perch atop the horse, glances over her shoulder at him, creating a sense of tension. Isolated against the pale ground of the circus ring and striding forward, the ringmaster clearly dominates the scene both psychologically and visually.
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