The Cirque d’Hiver is an oval polygon of 20 sides, with Corinthian columns at the angles, giving the impression of an oval building enclosing the oval ring, surrounded by steeply banked seating for spectators, very much like a miniature indoor Colosseum. A low angled roof is self-supporting like a low dome, so that there is no supporting poles, as under a tent, to obstruct views or interfere with the action.
The building was designed by the architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff and opened on 11 December 1852 as the Cirque Napoléon, a compliment to the new Emperor of the French Napoleon III. The sculptor James Pradier was called upon to provide exterior bas-reliefs of Amazons, and Francisque Duret and Astyanax-Scévola Bosio sculpted the panels of mounted warriors. The guiding entrepreneur was Louis Dejean, the proprietor of the Cirque d’Été (“Summer Circus”) erected annually in the bosquets that flanked the Champs-Élysées. Dejean wagered that evening circus performances under the limelight, with the spectators well removed from the dust and smells of the tanbark floor, would provide a dress occasion for le tout-Paris, and he was well rewarded for his acumen.
At the end of the Second Empire, the Cirque d’Hiver was renamed the Cirque National, and was administered by Victor Franconi. It was given it’s present name in 1873. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec repeatedly found inspiration in rehearsals and performances at the Cirque d’Hiver; Georges Seurat painted an afternoon performance, with a distinctly middle-class audience, in The Circus, one of the greatest unfinished canvases in the history of Western painting (1890–91, Musée d’Orsay). Franconi’s son Charles assumed direction, 1897–1907. Since 1934 it has been the Cirque d’Hiver-Bouglione, operated by the Bouglione brothers and their heirs. The original configuration accommodated 4,000, which has now been reduced to 2,090 due to fire codes.
At the Cirque d’Hiver in August 1955, Richard Avedon took his famous photograph of the fashion model “Dovima with the Elephants” to show a floor-length evening dress by Dior, one of the most iconic fashion photographs of the century.
In 1999 the Bouglione family who had ceased all circus activities in the seventies presented their first circus show again in the building. It was called SALTO and featured great performers such as Nadja Gasser and her sea lions, Pat Bradford & Kate, Russian clown Andrej Nikolaev and many others.
To this day the Bouglione family still presents great circus shows in the winter months which are a must see for circus fans from all over Europe. Piet-Hein Out was there in 1999 to see SALTO and has taken pictures from every show since then.
110, rue Amelot