Contrary to what the composition of James Tissot’s The Circus Lover might suggest, the real subjects of this painting are the female spectators in the foreground, not the trapeze dandy—a member of the Parisian aristocracy taking part in an amateur circus—in the upper center of the picture. The work is one of 18 large paintings made by Tissot in a series called Women of Paris, which depicts women of various social classes as they might have been encountered around town: taking in the circus, at lunch, on the streets of the city. Tissot is recognized today for his meticulous documentation of Parisian fashion; as you can see in the Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity exhibition, Tissot would often paint different models in the same dress, so enamored was he with contemporary fashion. In the same vein, The Circus Lover is not so much about the circus as it is about the women watching it and what they're wearing.
Two women are seated in the foreground of this amateur circus, forming a gorgeous counterpoint to each other. One faces us with a slightly haughty expression; the other has her back to us. One woman wears a light pink dress, the other a bright red. One fan, cream-colored, is closed and cocked over a shoulder; the other is black and spread across the woman’s chest. It is almost as if Tissot had to represent two women who would serve as the second half of the other; in this way the artist could represent the back and the front of dresses, hats, and fans, always with lavish details.
What Tissot has mainly captured in The Circus Lover, though, is the newfound and hard-won liberty of women in Paris in the late 19th century. While the audience is a mix of men and women—segregated though they may be—these two women, and many others, appear to be unaccompanied. Their clothing suggests utter respectability, but the fact that they are out for an evening unescorted—and even pointedly ignoring the ardent gentleman leaning into their box—showcases the extent to which la Parisienne was becoming a force in French culture. Fashionable, bold, maybe even slightly superior, this new category of women was a critical step in redefining femininity for the modern age. Send in the clowns!
James Tissot. The Circus Lover from the series Women of Paris, 1885. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection, 58.45.