The circus appealed to Montmartre artists for both its perpetual activity and its outlandish spectacle. The butte's Cirque Fernando, which captured much of the flamboyant energy of the hill, was a popular subject for Lautrec and other artists, including Louis Anquetin, Pierre Bonnard, Henri-Gabriel Ibels, and Théophile Pierre Wagner.
Lautrec's interest in the circus was a logical extension of his childhood paintings and drawings of equestrian scenes. One of his earliest mature works, Equestrienne (At the Circus Fernando), 1887–1888, features the trained horses that were a major circus attraction of the period. The painting, admired for its youthful confidence and brazen sexual overtones, was purchased by the Moulin Rouge's owner to hang in the famous dance hall.
While Lautrec never fully abandoned the subject of the circus in the 1890s, it was not until his 1899 institutionalization that he returned to the subject with full force. Early that year, when the artist's alcoholism had become life threatening, Lautrec was confined against his wishes to a clinic in suburban Paris. Determined to win his release, Lautrec made a series of crayon circus drawings from memory to convince his doctors of the soundness of his mind. Recalling subject matter from his earliest days in Montmartre, the ailing Lautrec's late circus drawings are poignant images that secured his release from the clinic. In the following years, Lautrec's health deteriorated as his alcoholism progressed; he died in the arms of his mother on September 9, 1901, at the age of thirty-six, leaving behind a vivid legacy expressing the spirit of Montmartre.
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