Circus Posters

Daredevil horse riders. A horse that rides a balloon! Spooky mind-readers and strongmen galore. All this, like the old Madison Square Garden, has vanished – Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus has struck its Big Top and tossed its Three Rings away for the very last time. But the circus is still here, lithographed in memory, waiting to create a carnival on your wall.

100. Barnum & Bailey / Paradise Alley. 1897.
100. Barnum & Bailey / Paradise Alley. 1897.
Artist: Anonymous
36 7/8 x 28 7/8 in./93.8 x 73.2 cm
Est: $8,000-$10,000.

One of the most interesting and unique of all circus poster images ever created. Here, for your amazéd eyes, are “The two greatest riders in horse sketches true / Of Paradise Alley and Fifth Avenoo.” Paradise Alley, the deepest darkest den of Five Points (where the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits battled in “Gangs of New York”), delivers a hardscrabble working-class gal, atop a rough nag (a sign around the horse’s neck reads, “My chest is week” [sic]). Opposing her is the belle of Manhattan gentry, all silk and lace, standing upon a charging white Arabian stallion. In reality, they’re Josie Ashton and Rose Wentworth, two of the greatest equestriennes in show business. They perform among a cavalcade of cheering clowns and little people, in a spectacle of the ages.

102. Barnum & Bailey / Jupiter. 1909.
102. Barnum & Bailey / Jupiter. 1909.
29 1/2 x 39 1/4 in./75 x 99.6 cm
Est: $2,000-$2,500.

For the 1909 season, the “latest and greatest thriller” of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus was “Jupiter, the Balloon Horse, in his Sensational Ascension Act with a gorgeous Pyrotechnic Display at every performance of The Greatest Show on Earth.” Acrobat Nettie Carroll sat atop Jupiter, and would demonstrate how cool-as-a-cucumber this highly educated horse could be, even when lifted sky-high, and challenged to buck and bolt from the fireworks around it. “The picture calls to mind the mythological tales of Germany’s war heroes,” said the Automotive Industries Magazine, Vol. 21. (In reality, a system of ropes and pulleys was used.)

101. Forepaugh & Sells Brothers / Madison Square Garden. 1900.
101. Forepaugh & Sells Brothers / Madison Square Garden. 1900.
Artist: Anonymous
38 x 27 3/8 in./95.4 x 69.5 cm
Est: $2,000-$2,500.

The circus is entirely incidental to the grandeur of the venue: the utterly jaw-dropping Madison Square Garden II, built in 1890. To be able to see it, and trace the exotic Moorish details of this Beaux-Arts masterpiece, is to experience the wonder and mystique of Old New York. The main hall was the largest in the world – New York’s “greatest arena and the only one great enough to show there.” Alas, such beautiful things never last. Stanford White, the venue’s architect, had used his lover Evelyn Nesbit as the model for the statue of Diana on the tower’s top; her husband, Harry Thaw, then murdered White on the venue’s rooftop garden – an episode that inspired E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. New York Life Insurance, which owned the mortgage, tore it down to make room for its own headquarters on Madison Square Park. Relics like these are all we have to remember its majesty.

116. Afra the Mindreader / Crystal Palace.
Artist: Anonymous
37 1/4 x 24 7/8 in./94.6 x 63.2 cm
Est: $1,200-$1,500.

“Ask me, and I will tell you your most secret thoughts,” whispers Afra, the mind-reader, in this undated but spookily alluring entertainment poster from Budapest.

339. La Loupiote / Aristide Bruant. 1909.
339. La Loupiote / Aristide Bruant. 1909.
Artist: Francisque Poulbot
46 x 61 3/8 in./116.8 x 155.8 cm
Est: $2,500-$3,000.

During Poulbot’s fifty-year poster career, he designed several images to advertise novels serialized in Le Journal – two by the roguish cabaret performer Aristide Bruant. We have both of them here (see following lot). The word “loupiote” is argot for “child” so the title might be translated as “The Little Tike.” The plot concerns an orphaned baby girl who is adopted by a circus troupe, and the flavorful backstage scene here shows the influence of Ibels on Poulbot’s early work. This variant has a clown holding up a title card for the novel; other versions omit the clown and switch the positioning of artist and title text. Today, Bruant is more famous as a Toulouse-Lautrec poster subject (see Le Café-Concert, lot 379) than as an entertainer or novelist.

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