Aristocratic Acrobatics: Ernest Molier’s Amateur Circus

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Aristocratic Acrobatics: Ernest Molier’s Amateur Circus
The cult of the circus permeated Parisian society at the end of the 19th century when there were over 20 venues to delight in the circus arts: the Cirque d’Hiver, the Cirque Fernando and Hippodrome, by example. The circus was never considered high art but appealed equally to the laundry maid and the landed gentry and began to acquire a level of social acceptability among artistic and literary communities. The ever-so gossipy Edmond de Goncourt wrote a novel expounding on the noble qualities of the life of a circus performer in his Les Frères Zemganno for whom he consulted with the top artists of the circus world. The social elite of the Belle Époque wanted in on the act. In 1880 a private, yet amateur, circus belonging to Ernest Molier gave them the chance. Cirque Molier was essentially an amusement by and for high society. Molier created a makeshift circus at his home in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, just steps from the Bois de Boulogne. His roster consisted of the Parisian elite who were proficient in riding, fencing, and gymnastics. Count This and Baron That from the best Parisian circles tried their hand and assumed a radical new identity in the process, if only for one day. The Molier Camel Ernest Molier had always had a penchant for circuses and equestrian events, saying as a child “he would die in the saddle.” This youthful hubris was realized – by the age of 25 Molier had become an accomplished horseman. Everyday he practiced dressage from home and trained pupils. Molier went on to train not just horses but also dogs, monkeys, geese, and even camels. Molier had always been a bit of a dilettante but at the age of 36 his childhood dream of joining the circus became a reality. With the aid of his upper crust volunteers, he became a circus impresario – an unusual career choice for the son of a treasurer and magistrate. Molier’s original makeshift circus was a rudimentary wooden structure that enclosed the riding stable located at his home on the Rue de Bénouville. The structure included a circus ring of the standard 13m, the same as a professional circus. Accommodating around 400 people, the Cirque Molier was accessed via one narrow entry and the loges could only be reached by the means of ladders, removed once the final spectator was seated. Ernest Molie. Photo credit © Agence Rol, Wikimedia
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Lead photo credit : Cirque Molier. Photo credit © Toronto Public Library

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.