Visiting the Circus Fernando, situated in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, was a popular pastime among middle-class Parisians and several artists would seek inspiration from the performances that occurred inside its walls. Lautrec, a resident of the French capital, frequented the circus and created pencil drawings of the entertaining scenes that unfolded before him. Horses, particularly those involved in the circus, were a recurring theme in the French painter’s work and other notable examples include The Spanish Walk and Work in the Ring. The painting, based on sketches that the artist made from his ringside seat, measures 100.3 cm by 161.3 cm and is displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Louis Fernando, the stocky acrobat and equestrian who had founded the Circus Fernando in the 1870s and assumed the role of ringmaster, appears at the left-hand side of the painting with his back turned to the viewer and his bullish face directed towards the rider. The ringmaster, holding his shoulders back and brandishing a horse-whip, is wearing a dark-grey tailcoat over a white shirt which is visible at both the neckline and cuffs while the rider is wearing pink footwear over grey tights as well as a green tutu. Tailcoats, such as the one worn by the ringmaster and by the men in the audience, were the height of fashion during the 1880s and indicated that the wearer occupied a position of middling to high social status.
Fernando's arched eyebrows, handlebar moustache and head of medium-length hair are the same colour as his tailcoat while the pink of his pursed lips stands in stark contrast to the beige tones of his face. The orange-haired horse rider, situated on the right-hand side of the canvas and mounted side-saddle on her grey-white steed, has turned her face towards the ringmaster as if she is awaiting his instruction. A flash of white, representing her teeth, is visible through her parted lips which are are turned up at the corners in a smile.
The horse, the hoof of its right hind-leg raised in the air and its head pointing downwards, is galloping along the perimeter of the circus ring while a couple of performers can be seen behind the ringmaster. One of the performers, visible only from the waist down, is wearing a pair of baggy white trousers and is standing on a red platform that is supported by four white legs. The other figure, diminutive in stature and facing away from the viewer, is wearing a dark tailcoat and white gloves while the pointed shoe of his right leg is pointed upwards as if he was performing a dance.