Lipchitz arrived in Paris in 1909 at the age of eighteen, drawn like so many other foreign artists to the unprecedented artistic and bohemian energy of Montparnasse. By 1913 he was recognized as a precocious talent within the cosmopolitan School of Paris, whose leading figures included Braque, Léger, Modigliani, Chagall and above all Picasso, whom Lipchitz met for the first time that year. Inspired by the climate of imaginative cross-fertilization fostered by this international avant-garde, Lipchitz began to chart a ground-breaking path toward Cubist volumes in his sculpture. "Cubism lent itself so naturally to sculptural construction," he later reflected, and the cascading perspectives and deconstructed form probingly dissected in contemporary paintings by Picasso and Braque would become a critical touchstone for Lipchitz's own work as he deftly translated the vocabulary of Cubist painting into three-dimensional form (in My Life in Sculpture, New York, 1972, p. 40).
The Cubist evolution of Lipchitz's sculpture, fully realized in 1915, is already anticipated in L'Acrobate à cheval, an important transitional work. Here, the curvilinear rhythm of the horse and rider, carried in an elegant serpentine line from the horse's front leg through the arched posture of the acrobat, forms a dynamic visual counterpoint to the pointed angularity of the horse's back legs and the faceted planes of his rear haunches. Although the naturalistic forms are retained, they are fluently assimilated into a geometricizing paradigm; the accented, staccato transitions between flowing contour and articulated angle emphasize the passage from Lipchitz's earlier, classicizing portraits into the revolutionary formal language of Cubism.
"Although the emphasis upon angularity and flattened planes seems to be—and indeed is—in the spirit of the time," Henry R. Hope has observed, "Lipchitz tells us that 'my ideal was then Villard de Honnecourt, for I had just discovered in his geometricized human figures, drawn in the thirteenth century, he had done exactly what I was trying to do in the twentieth'" (quoted in The Sculpture of Jacques Lipchitz, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1954, pp. 9-10). The constructive geometry and triangular bodies of Villard, a medieval draughtsman whose portfolio drawings Lipchitz studied, suggest an historic precedent for his proto-Cubist studies in geometric curvature and movement. Indeed, in the organic dynamism of L'Acrobate à cheval, Lipchitz radically revives Villard's bodies, finding in this Gothic source an apt sculptural metaphor for what Cathy Pütz has described as the Cubist equation of "simultaneity and interconnectivity, a pattern of heterogeneous parts working in unexpected harmony" (Jacques Lipchitz: The First Cubist Sculptor?, London, 2002, p. 9).
"I think that L'Acrobate à cheval was probably inspired by Seurat," Lipchitz later reflected, "for whom I have always had a great admiration. There is no particular stylistic relationship, but the idea for the subject may have derived from Seurat's circus scenes...The circus subjects resulted from the passion that all of us had for the wonderful French circus of this period" (J. Lipchitz, op. cit., 1972, p. 16). The Cirque Fernando, one of four permanent circuses in Paris, had been a celebrated venue and favorite subject for artists such as Degas and Seurat since the 1870s, and its popularity continued unabated into the twentieth century. The flamboyant theatricality and outlandish spectacle of its acrobats and performers provided rich visual inspiration for its artist-patrons, and in its imaginative choreography Lipchitz, too, found a dramatic subject for his evolving sculptural language.