May 13, 2014–January 8, 2017

Chicago, Illinois


Oil on canvas

89 x 117"

Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York

Gift of Tom Conway, 1987.14.1

Photo by Schecter Lee

Attributed to Fred G. Johnson (1892-1990); O. Henry Tent & Awning Co.

Untitled (Sideshow Banner)

Sideshow banners are painted signs on canvas that were designed to lure carnival- or circus-goers into a sideshow tent, where they would be encouraged to pay extra to see mesmerizing performances or repellent specimens of the unusual, sensational, exotic, and bizarre, alive and in the flesh: Lion Face Girl, The Most Unusual Married Couple, Tattooed Wonder, Big Footed Girl, Lobster Boy, Frog Boy, Eeka’s Native Haunts, Lifts Weights with Hair. Sideshows were a popular diversion from the 1870s to the late 1960s. The banners were the repository of outrageous racial stereotypes, sexist representations of women, and discriminatory attitudes toward individuals afflicted with all sorts of deformities. This exploitive treatment received shockingly little public outcry and persisted into the latter half of the twentieth century. With its codified style and aesthetic, the sideshow banner recalls other art forms, like graffiti. Recognized for their effectiveness, these announcements make use of advertising tools and techniques—symbols, characters, terminology, lettering, caricature, and exaggerated traits.

Sideshow banners are defined by a visual clarity; however, the act depicted in this piece is unclear. It is attributed to Fred G. Johnson, who worked for the O. Henry Tent and Awning Company in Chicago for forty years and was considered to be one of the finest sideshow banner painters. The back of the banner bears a handwritten inscription, “Radium Girl,” but the elements in this scene do not relate to that classic stage illusion, which involves binding and confining a female assistant in a box and seemingly piercing her from all sides by inserting rods and blades through the surface. The banner, rather, portrays a technician illuminating the bones of a bathing beauty, albeit with a spotlight rather than an X-ray machine. The X-ray machine was introduced—and apparently demonstrated on members of the public—at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. No one at the turn of the century was aware of the dangers inherent in such exposure.

Valérie Rousseau, “Untitled (Sideshow Banner),” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.