Two 19th Century Paintings of Jugglers in Sydney, Australia

The Art Gallery Of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia contains two paintings which are two of the finest examples of jugglers in art. “The Juggler-a village fair” by Fritz Beinke (1873), and “A Juggler” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1870).

Fritz Beinke painted, “The Juggler-a village fair” at the age of 31. Beinke(1842-1907) was a genre painter of the Düsseldorf School. He studied painting in the Düsseldorf academy and on trips to northern Italy. He won prizes for his exhibited works in Cologne, Germany and Sydney, Australia.

“The juggler: a village fair” was one of his exhibited works and remained in Sydney after the exhibit, purchased by the museum in 1879. It was one of the first contemporary paintings acquired by the museum and one of the two most expensive paintings they owned at the time.

The juggler, standing on a small stage, is balancing an object on his nose and juggling three glass balls. A musician is accompanying him with a bugle and a small girl with a blue ribbon is collecting coins from the audience. The audience is enjoying the routine especially a group of laughing children to his left. He has a stylish head of red hair and pink knickerbockers to match. This unpretentious depiction is a rare view into bygone days. It is a joyous image, captured by the artist’s ingenuity, in the days before our ubiquitous cameras (which capture the unwanted together with the wanted) existed, a time when celebrating the moment was paramount and recording it meant months of hard work.

The second painting is by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who was a Dutch Victorian painter, influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement and famous for his attention to detail and historical accuracy. He eventually settled in London after traveling Europe and studying the works of ancient Egypt, Gaul, and Rome, notibly in recently excavated Pompeii.

Alma-Tadma gained world renound for bringing large, colorful, and meticulously painted images of the distant past to life. Three of his paintings, ‘Spring,’ ‘The Finding Of Moses,’ and ‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’ were huge hits at the time and won numerous awards and went on tour. People would stand in long lines winding around the block for a chance to see the new sensation and glimpse a window into classical antiquity with each flower petal and marble step rendered exquisitely.

In “A Juggler” we find a fabulously wealthy family of Roman nobility lounging in their villa in Pompeii. There are sumptuous murals painted on the walls and the marble columns with Corinthian capitals are depicted with amazing detail as is the ornate entablature.

The family gives all their attention to the skilled entertainer. The juggler in Egyptian costume is performing. He is juggling five eggs. The eggs are seen in an entirely plausible position for a ‘snapshot’ view, and the height of the pattern is correct.

As a historian Alma-Tadma must have known about ancient Egyptian jugglers, such as those depicted on the Beni Hassan tombs. He likely had also seen contemporary jugglers in action. He therefore combined the two to get a unique, accurate, and artistically valid image.

As for the choice of eggs as props there are two possibilities. Either he made a reasonable guess based on what must have been available to jugglers at that time, or he knew about the Talmudic passage in tractate Succoth in which the Babylonian Rabbi Abaye (280-339CE) is described as juggling with eggs. (Talmud Bavli Succoth 53a)

Also remarkable about these two paintings, aside from the coincidence of two rare paintings of jugglers from the same decade being in the same museum, is the contrast between the two. They are equal yet opposite. They both show a juggler and his audience enjoying his skills. But that’s where the similarity ends.

Fritz Beinke shows a contemporary scene, something he might have himself witnessed only moments before, accessible to all, outdoors and at a fair for the delight of anyone.

Lawrence Alma-Tadma shows an exclusive scene, only for a privileged family. A family that lived 2000 years ago. It is a composite, pieced together from myriad bits of information computed by the artist’s mind. It is something you could never see, but he shows it to you with his super power. The time-machine of his brush.

Raphael Harris was the proprietor of the Jerusalem Circus School for Children for over ten years. He has performed "Sir Juggley's One Man Circus" over a thousand times. He appeared in the Guiness Book of World Records twice and the Record Setters Book of World Records three times. He lives in New York.

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