The Nelson-Atkins
Under the Big Top
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Under the Big Top

After almost 150 years of entertaining audiences, one of the oldest and longest-running American circuses, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, performed its final show in 2017, marking the end of an era.

From the razzle-dazzle of performances under the spotlights to the complicated dynamics between entertainers and their audiences, American artists have been inspired by the phenomenon of the circus. They celebrated the often unsung individuals whose collective sweat and labor ensured a stunning show. Artists provided an intimate look into the daily lives of performers outside the ring and the impact of grueling schedules.

Under the Big Top reveals the anatomy of the circus. It showcases the awe and wonder it inspires as well as many behind-the-scenes elements integral to the success of the greatest show on earth.

About Gallery 214 in the American Galleries
The American art collection features more than 600 works on paper. Exhibitions in Gallery 214 change every six months to share the variety of the art on paper collection, highlight its connection to other museum collections, and protect the art from overexposure to damaging light.

Circus by Harry Louis Freund
The Acrobats Brass Band

Harry Louis Freund, American (1905-1999). Circus, circa 1935. Oil on Masonite-type board, 30 x 40 inches. Gift of James and Virginia Moffett in honor of the 75th anniversary of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 2009.49.1. Photo: Michael Lamy. Bernice Evelyn Jamieson, American (1898-1977). The Acrobats, about 1935. Woodcut on paper, 6 3/4 x 9 1/4 inches. Gift of the Woodcut Society, 35-35/83. Kenneth Heilbron, American (1903-1997). Brass band, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, 1930s-40s. Gelatin silver print, 15 9/16 × 19 1/4 inches. Gift of Steven Nordman, 2013.61.23.