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Circus and Wild West Posters
26 awe-inspiring designs

Acrobats, bareback riders, and performing seals—oh my! Circus and Wild West posters constantly instill bedazzling wonder, from unbelievable performances to strange and exotic sideshows. Saddle up for an exciting ride with Barnum & Bailey, Ringling Bros., Buffalo Bill, and more.

60. Barnum & Bailey / Écuyers Debout. 1896.
Artist: Anonymous
38 1/2 x 30 1/2 in./98 x 77.6 cm
Est: $1,400-$1,700

Bareback riders on tandem teams—purportedly racing in the manner of thrill-seeking equestrians of the Roman Empire—gallop full-tilt around their Big Top hippodrome. Precisely authentic? Perhaps not, but it’s unquestionably invigorating advertising nonetheless. This is the French text version.

63. Barnum & Bailey / Scéne Excitante. 1898.
37 1/2 x 35 1/2 in./95.2 x 77.3 cm
Est: $1,400-$1,700

No, you’re not dreaming—baboon jockeys are riding Shetland ponies around a track as a clown cheers them on in Barnum & Bailey’s Children’s Circus. This is the French text version.

67. Barnum & Bailey / The Könyöt Family. 1909.
Artist: Anonymous
38 3/4 x 28 3/4 in./98.6 x 73 cm
Est: $1,000-$1,200

“The Könyöt family, a multigenerational troupe of equestrian performers, first came to the United States from Hungary in 1909 to perform with [Barnum & Bailey]. They traveled with the show for four seasons before returning to Europe to tour their own circus. Featured in the center ring, the Könyöts were skilled dressage and bareback riders. The 1911 program describes the troupe as performing ‘great feats of whirlwind jockey, carrying, jumping and acrobatic equitation’” (Strobridge, p. 230). This is the earliest version of the poster from the troupe’s debut season.

72. Ringling / Barnum & Bailey / Big Double Menagerie.
Artist: Anonymous
28 1/4 x 41 3/4 in./72 x 106 cm
Est: $1,200-$1,500

A ferocious roaring tiger announces the “big double menagerie” of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey combined shows. Passersby were almost certainly horrified and intrigued by the toothsome display.

74. Sells-Floto / Seals. 1932.
Artist: Anonymous
28 1/8 x 41 in./71.5 x 104 cm
Est: $1,400-$1,700

Strikingly similar to a design printed by Strobridge in 1924 (see Strobridge, p. 213), we are presented with a fleet of performing seals doing everything from balancing routines to juggling to playing instruments. Seals were first introduced to the circus world in the 1890s, and by the turn of the century were a standard showpiece in any quality performance.

80. Hippodrome Bostock. ca. 1900.
Artist: Cândido Aragonez de Faria (1849-1911)
23 1/2 x 31 1/4 in./59.8 x 79.5 cm
Est: $1,200-$1,500

Blanche Allarty was destined to a luminous riding career: she grew up surrounded by horses thanks to her father, an amateur horseman; at 13, she took up riding lessons with Ernest Molier, who was known as the “Centaur” for his equine mastery. Molier immediately recognized her skill and passion, and invited her to perform at his Cirque Molier, which led to further traveling shows for the young star. After a performance in New York, the press and spectators dubbed her the “Centauress,” a fitting nickname for the pupil—and later wife—of the Centaur. Here, Faria exhibits one of her famous feats, accomplished with the cool confidence of a woman born to ride.

81. The Life of Buffalo Bill in 3 Reels. 1912.
Artist: Anonymous
42 1/8 x 80 7/8 in./107 x 205.5 cm
Est: $5,000-$6,000

This is the very rare three-sheet version of “The Life of Buffalo Bill.” The vignettes have changed from its first and more well-known variant (see PAI-LXXIX, 173), with Cody at the center, now dismounted. At the top is the famed Stage Robbery scene presented at all the Buffalo Bill shows, while the bottom showcases a display of his heroics as a military scout under General Carr. The film was produced by the Buffalo Bill-Pawnee Bill Film Co. in New York.

82. Buffalo Bill & Pawnee Bill / A Sioux Chief. ca. 1910.
Artist: Anonymous
13 7/8 x 40 7/8 in./35.2 x 104 cm
Est: $2,500-$3,000

Though unnamed, this stately portrait is surely of Iron Tail, who was the principal Indian in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West—and later on, in the combined shows with Pawnee Bill. “Iron Tail is one of the few Indians who was individually featured in posters of the Wild West. When he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in 1901, Enquirer featured him in several of their posters; subsequently Russell-Morgan portrayed him in handsome lithographs during the Buffalo Bill-Pawnee Bill partnership…” (Buffalo Bill, p. 14). Rare!

84. Cirque d'Hiver. ca. 1900.
Artist: Jean-Alcide-Henri Boichard (1817-?)
36 x 49 7/8 in./91.5 x 126.7 cm
Est: $2,000-$2,500

Little is known of lion tamer Countess X; her mask doubled as a stylish accessory and a means to conceal her identity. However, an 1896 review provides the following insight on her performances: “The Countess has been training these beasts for the last fifteen months, but she does not seem to have subdued their savage nature to any great extent. Her only protection is afforded by a wooden shield, which she violently thumps upon the ground to emphasize her orders. At times she brandishes a whip, at others she holds a thin bar of bright metal in her hand; but she never uses either of these weapons. The nearest approach to taming the lions consists in the evident appreciation of her coaxing tones of voice and the tickling of the nose by the playful application of the thong of the whip” (The Sketch, Vol. 15). Perhaps by the time Boichard designed this image, she’d mastered beastly authority—but in any case, her ensemble remains fierce.

85. Circus Sarrasani. ca. 1912.
Artist: Carl Moos (1878-1959)
35 3/8 x 48 7/8 in./89.8 x 124 cm
Est: $2,000-$2,500

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was a performative inspiration far and wide—and here, the mythology has landed in Germany, where the director of the Circus Sarrasani has imagined himself an American scout. Like most designs by Carl Moos, there is the presence of both stoicism and whimsy in his graphically paired-back approach. The circus was founded in 1902 by Hans Stosch, whose clown stage name was Giovanni Sarrasani. They gained worldwide fame by traveling and performing abroad, and in 1912, a stationary circus was opened in Dresden. This same year, they invited a group of Sioux Indians to perform Wild West shows with them in Germany. The collaboration apparently worked well: the South Dakota tribe continued to work for this circus until at least 1936.

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