Degas & Miss La La

Degas & Miss La La

All artists have their muses.

For Dante Rossetti it was Elizabeth Siddal, Lucian Freud looked to the artist and then-girlfriend Celia Paul, and for Pablo Picasso, it was Dora Maar. Whether lovers, friends, assistants or protégés, multiple muses often come and go throughout an artist's lifetime. But their singular impressions are immortalised forever through the artworks they inspire. This is the case for Miss La La and Degas.

As part of its free ‘Discover’ series, The National Gallery has launched a captivating exhibition revolving around Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas’s painting Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879 (running until September 1st 2024). First acquired for the nation in 1925, thanks to the Courtauld Fund, the exhibition sets the premise painting's approaching centenary in the gallery’s collection. Visitors can expect groundbreaking research on Miss La La, her life and career to the public, including a number of never-before-seen photographs of Olga, as she was known to her friends and family.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879 © The National Gallery, London

In January 1879, the French painter, Edgar Degas, attended performances at the newly built Cirque Fernando in Paris. It was there that he saw and grew fascinated with star acrobat Miss La La (born Anna Albertine Olga Brown, 1858‒1945). Soon after, Olga's dexterity, technical prowess and poise achieved international fame. Today, The National Gallery makes us privy to her grace via one of Degas' most original and arresting paintings.

Dressed in a lilac leotard with gold flounces, Olga spirals towards the circus ceiling with a rope clenched between her teeth for suspension. The strikingly perilous act understandably imprinted itself onto Degas' mind. To illustrate her hanging from the circus' vertiginous rafters, Degas employed his typically confident brushwork and vibrant palette of tangerine orange, teal and soft pastels.

A landmark Impressionist painting, it was first shown at the 4th Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in April 1879; an uncompromisingly daring and modern fete at the time. For its part, The National Gallery isn't pulling any punches, and delves into Degas and Olga's world with preparatory drawings (reunited for this exhibition) that show the artist observing and sketching his remarkably talented sitter. A large drawing of Olga (last published over a hundred years ago) sits alongside two newly discovered, unpublished drawings: a rare sketch of Olga embedded within the circus architecture, and an unknown drawing of her stage partner Theophilia, from the ‘Miss La La and the Kaira Troupe’.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando, 1879. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles,
California (2004.93). Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

Who was Miss La La?

Born in Szczecin, Prussia (now Poland) to a European mother and an African-American father, Olga enjoyed immense success in France, England and beyond. A poster-studded section in the show attests to her brilliant career, as well as several newly discovered photographs of Olga as a successful aerialist, in her acrobat outfit, and posing next to props or her circus partners. These visuals are joined by photographic portraits of Olga portraying multiple facets of her life beyond her work. She's radiant as a woman in society, a successful circus manager, and family matriarch. While considering recent depictions of Black models, the exhibition aims to restore Miss La La’s name – Anna Albertine Olga Brown – and re-address the historic anonymity of non-white sitters.

Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, about 1880 © Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, Museum Purchase

Altogether, Degas is believed to have only painted two works representing people of colour, despite being the son of a Creole mother (of European descent) and fascinated by the ethnic diversity he saw during a trip to New Orleans in 1872‒73. This makes the painting's legacy all the more novel. It's commemorated in the final part of the exhibition as lead curator, Anne Robins, unveils her selection of 1920s British art inspired by the piece, including works by artists Thérèse Lessore and Duncan Grant.

Anne Robbins says: "Working on this exhibition has been an incredible adventure, with so many new discoveries – about Miss La La herself, about Degas’s working process and about his complex approach to his model, Olga Brown. We cannot wait to share with the public this fascinating information, and these stunning artworks which have never been seen or published before. They change the way we look at this painting and its extraordinary sitter forever."

Title image. Unknown. Cirque d’hiver, 1884-6. Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris © Mairie de Paris, Photothèque des Musées de la ville de Paris