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Image of ‘Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando’ by Degas, 1879.

‘Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando’ by Degas, 1879

The acrobat Miss La La caused a sensation when she performed at the Cirque Fernando in Paris. Here she is shown suspended from the rafters of the circus dome by a rope clenched between her teeth which passes over a pulley, out of our sight.

Miss La La was a 'wirewalker, trapeze artist and strongwoman' who performed aerial stunts and feats of strength. She was of mixed race in a racist age, and the circus was one of the few industries that was effectively colour blind.

Miss La La's real name may have been Olga Kaira. She was born in 1858 in Stettin, Germany (now Poland) and began performing at the age of nine. She appeared under various stage names including 'Olga la Négresse', 'The African Princess' and 'The Cannon Woman' after a stunt in which she held up a cannon by her teeth.

Degas sought out such striking modern subjects, concentrating on figures in arresting poses. In January 1879 he made a series of drawings at the Cirque Fernando including a pastel study of Miss La La (London, Tate Gallery), which culminated in this painting. We view the spectacle as the audience would have done, gazing up at the daring feat taking place above.

© The National Gallery, London


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