The theme of the circus and the circus performer has a long tradition in art and in literature, especially prominent in French art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A more immediate inspiration for Pablo Picasso came from performances of the Cirque Médrano, a circus that the artist attended frequently near his residence and studio in Montmartre.
Circus performers were regarded as social outsiders. They provided a telling symbol for the alienation of the avant-garde artists and poets of their time. Picasso's Family of Saltimbanques (1905) is perhaps an autobiographical statement, a group portrait of him and his circle. The red clown figure is said to be modeled after his friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Apollinaire similarly wrote a poem titled, Saltimbanque in 1913, an English translation is below.
In a funny twist to their friendship, Apollinaire, who had once called for the Louvre to be burnt down, came under suspicion, was arrested, and imprisoned for the 1911 theft of the famous Mona Lisa. Apollinaire implicated his friend Picasso, who was then brought in for questioning. The event created somewhat of a media circus, but both men were later exonerated.
(The "Traveling Entertainers" or "Acrobats")
The strollers in the plain
walk the length of gardens
before the doors of grey inns
through villages without churches
And the children gone before
The others follow dreaming
Each fruit tree resigns itself
When they signal from afar
They have burdens round or square
drums and golden tambourines
Apes and bears wise animals
gather coins as they progress
|Family of Saltimbanques | 1905|
Oil on Canvas | 83 3/4 in. x 90 3/8 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington