Like ape or clown, in monstrous garb [...] we went round and round [...]

(Oscar Wilde)

With a white round face, red ball for a nose and large painted smile, the clown makes us laugh. An emoji featuring big eyes and tufts of hair sticking out above his ears indicates a character or a situation that is silly, or funny, or foolish.

But under the painted face is there also something to fear, suspicious or actually scary? Is the smile hiding a profound suffering, is the clown an object of pity?

The clown is a complex character. He may be bringing laughter or chaos, he is drunk and clumsy, or he may be endlessly wise. He is the misunderstood artist.

Born in the magic world of the circus, among acrobats, tightrope walkers, animal tamers, jugglers, and ventriloquists the archetype of the clown heralds laughter, and entertainment in a pure form. He is funny, favouring the slapstick genre of comedy; he prepares the audience for a form of innocent light relief. The reader may not be surprised to find that in Ancient Egypt the job of clown and priest may have been held by the same person.

The colourful circle of circus performers dazzled generations of painters. From Watteau to Degas, Renoir to Rouault, Cezanne, Seurat, and Chagall, captured the fantastic atmosphere and dizzying movement of the circus on canvas. And of course clowns.

Etymologically, the noun is derived from clowne or cloyne - meaning a mannerless peasant. On stage, ancient Greek and Roman theatre audiences were entertained by the fool, predecessor of the clown in 16th Century Commedia dell’Arte.

Commedia del’arte

Soon, one figure stood out from the magic performers. Pierrot, a character with a sad white painted face began to symbolise the concealing of feelings behind a masque.

Following a well-used theatrical trope – the love triangle – Pierrot is in love with Colombine who in turn loves Harlequin. When pictured together, like in the painting by Cezanne (1888) the two rivals project a striking triangle, with Pierrot in white, bending towards a proud, confident, more sophisticated Harlequin, dressed in the trademark red and black diamond costume. It is clear who is leading this small parade.

In Watteau’s 1719 painting, a large 185 cm canvas, Pierrot is presented off-centre, away from the other comedians. Wearing a white satin costume, too large for him, with the trademark frilled neck, he stands dejected, expressionless. In contrast, his fellow comedians are animated and amused, and appear to be mocking him. Against the blue sky in the background, larger than life, Pierrot stands alone.

The whole world is a circus

For children and adults alike, the circus is a form of pure, innocent entertainment; the circus is magic. But it may be stressful: the trapeze artist may break her flight, and the tame animals are actually wild beasts. Enter the clown, a clumsy, accident-prone character offering light relief from tension – and laughter.

Seurat, Degas, Matisse, Picasso were drawn to the magic world of the circus and tried to capture the colours, the drama and the dramatis personae on canvas.

Chagall, who was fascinated by the circus, has painted clowns musicians, clowns in love, clowns with flowers, clowns flying. He used bright colours and quiet pastels, to reflect their mood: Flying clown (1981) Clown with Flowers (1963) Les Clowns Musiciens (1981). One lithography in the series Elles by Toulouse-Lautrec, Clowness Assise (1896) features the Moulin Rouge clown Mademoiselle Cha-U-Kao, one of the few women clowns.

But what are we to make of André Gill’s Pierrot Thief? Dressed in his immaculate white Babygro, Pierrot’s hand is in a gold fish bowl. His intentions are made clear by the frying pan he is holding in the other hand. Is that for laughs? Or is he so hungry he resorts to stealing? Circus performers lived on the edge of society, they depended on the goodwill of their audience and their income fluctuated. It is possible that they were very poor.

The sad clown

Rejected by the object of his affection, Pierrot becomes melancholic; he spends entire nights contemplating the moon. The profundity of emotions that he can only express through gestures made the iconic Pierrot an ideal mascot for the symbolists. Like in Watteau’s painting, he doesn’t belong to the brotherhood of fellow artists. Distanced from its audience whom he is trying to entertain, putting on a smile he does not feel inside, the clown is a symbol of the alienated artist, forced to perform for an audience that doesn’t understand him.

Georges Rouault’s fascination with the world of circus is evident in over one third of the painter’s extensive work. He wanted to capture the contrast between the scintillating costume of the performers and what may be their dark interior life. In his paintings, the drama is played with severe thick black lines, with harsh, aggressive colours. Pierrot the clown is recognised by his white frilly collar in which his neck has disappeared, his head fell sideways: is he dead or dying? Is there a clown with very strong white paint on his collar and cap? Is he actually naked?

Images of the clown in his unhappy state were a favourite subject chosen to reflect the mood of modern painters.

During a difficult period in the artist’s life, Francis Picabia painted a series of melancholic clowns. Le Clown Fratellini (1937) features the frontal portrait of the haggard clown, the mask and heavy make-up concealing a troubled interior life.

Entering his eighth decade, Chagall’s paintings, like his mood, became darker. His 1957 clown is the image of sadness: his eyes are angled downwards, his white face with dark shadows like a tragic masque; the composition uses sombre colours, with just a splash or two of red and a purple moon. Off centre, the sad clown plays a small violin, next to him a flute player, both surrounded by indefinite or grotesque circus types.

The postmodern clown is a creative entertainer. The clumsy, lazy buffoon gave way to a smart, innovative and shocking attention grabber. Leigh Bowery with his outlandish outfits and bizarre accessories, his nose and nipples pierced, wanted to shock and outrage. Not content with stumbling and falling on his blue painted face to make audiences laugh, Bowery’s song and dance performance included vomit, enema as well as his famous ‘giving birth’ act, complete with wails and stage blood. In contrast to the artist’s eccentric persona, the portrait painted by Lucian Freud in 1991 is that of a gentle sleeping giant. The face is relaxed, the bald head leans against a raised shoulder. The only reminder of Bowery’s act is the round scar on his cheeks, from the large safety pins which he used to attach a fake smile to his lips. Unaware of the painter’s gaze, away from cruel audiences that adore and judge him, the clown appears vulnerable.