The Cirque Fernando was built in 1875 near the Place Pigalle in Paris, close to where Degas lived. He saw Miss La La perform there several times. Originally named Olga, she was a mixed-race circus performer famous for her feats of strength.
Here, she is suspended by her teeth as she is hoisted up to the roof of the circus by a rope on a pulley. Her other acts included hanging upside down from a trapeze while clenching a chain, which supported a firing cannon, between her teeth. Degas places us among the audience, looking up at the spectacle above.
Painting an acrobat allowed Degas to combine his interest in modern life with his fascination with complicated poses. He made a number of preparatory studies in various media, paying particular attention to the complex construction of the roof, which fills the painting. The picture was shown at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1879.
The Cirque Fernando was built in 1875 near the Place Pigalle in Paris, close to where Degas lived. In January 1879 he attended at least four performances of the sensational acrobat and aerialist, Miss La La, who he also invited to his studio. Miss La La was a mixed-race circus performer, originally named Olga, who was born in 1858. She began performing aged nine and became famous for her feats of strength.
In her most famous act she hung upside down from a trapeze while using a chain held between her teeth to support the weight of a boy, then a woman, then a man and finally a 150-pound firing cannon. In this picture, Degas does not show Miss La La’s signature act. Instead, he shows her performing a standard circus routine. Suspended by a rope clenched between her teeth – using a specially designed dental appliance, which Degas sketched separately – she is hoisted over 20 metres to the roof of the building by a pulley.
Painting an acrobat allowed Degas to combine his interest in modern life and his fascination with complicated poses, although this is his only circus painting. Unlike the circus pictures by his contemporaries such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Georges Seurat, the focus is not on the action within the ring itself or on the crowd’s reactions. Instead, Degas places us among the audience, looking up at the spectacle above.
He made a number of preparatory studies in various media for the painting. Miss La La’s pose was decided upon almost from the start, but Degas struggled with the perspective of the ceiling and sought assistance from an architectural draughtsman. Miss La La is placed high up and to the side of the picture, so it is the structure of the roof itself – the paired windows, beams, girders and gild decoration – that fills the painting. Miss La La’s pose is clearly integrated within this structure: the line of her arms and lower legs forms a parallel with the diagonal lines of the angled green girders, just as her body and thighs echo the vertical supports. Although we glimpse Miss La La’s face in profile, Degas’s primary focus in on her body and costume.
In painting a highly foreshortened figure suspended in space and seen from below, Degas may have been seeking to emulate the expansive ceiling paintings by Italian Baroque and Rococo artists such as Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Giovanni Battista Piazzetta. Degas would have known these works from his early years in Italy, and he had visited the country again in 1873, a few years before he painted this picture. Our view of Miss La La directly reproduces a viewpoint often used by Tiepolo.
In Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando Degas applied his deep knowledge of European art, especially religious painting, to a modern-life subject, producing a secular version of a saint ascending to heaven. The painting was shown at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1879.
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