The circus theme was often covered in the 1880's, especially by Renoir, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. However, The Circus, far from a merely anecdotal rendering of a modern form of entertainment, constitutes one of the most impressive applications of Divisionist theory.
Seurat interprets Charles Henry's theories on the psychological effects of line and colour as well those on the optical mixing of colours formulated by Chevreul and Hood.
When the painting was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants, a critic observed that "everything in The Circus achieves harmony through analogy, through the conciliation of opposites, conspiring towards a sense of gaiety: ascending lines, successive tone contrasts, pronounced dominance of orange, highlighted by a frame which creates an opposition of tone and colour with the whole...".
With this work, Seurat was seeking to create a symbiosis between artistic creation and scientific analysis, a subject of great popular interest in the 19th century.