â€śMiss La La at the Cirque Fernando,â€ť by Edgar Degas, 1879, black chalk with touches of pastel, 18 1/2 x 12 5/8 in.
Edgar Degas immortalized Miss La Laâ€™s breathtaking acrobatics â€” she was hoisted to the 70-foot ceiling of the Cirque Fernando by a rope clenched between her teeth â€” in his painting â€śMiss La La at the Cirque Fernando.â€ť Now the story behind this remarkable work is being told in depth for the first time in Degas, Miss La La, and the Cirque Fernando at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York (through May 12, 2013). The exhibition brings together Degasâ€™s painting, on loan from the National Gallery in London, and a rich array of related material, including preparatory drawings, pastels, an oil sketch, and a print by the artist.
â€śMiss La La at the Cirque Fernando,â€ť by Edgar Degas, 1879, oil on canvas, 117.2cm x 77.5 cm. National Gallery, London
From his earliest studies, Degas appears to have intended to record Miss La Laâ€™s astonishing feat, rather than her physical likeness. The preparatory drawings and pastels in the exhibition reveal his steadfast avoidance of Miss La Laâ€™s facial features, and his choice to focus instead on her muscular limbs, shimmering costume, tuft of black hair, and timeless, frozen pose of suspension. Only in his earliest depiction of the aerialist, dating to January 19, 1879, did the artist show the performer frontally rather than in profile, as she appears in the related painting and the other preliminary studies, all of which are in the exhibition.
â€śMiss La La at the Cirque Fernando,â€ť ca. 1880, albumen silver print, 15 7/16 x 11 5/16 in. Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University.
â€śMiss La La at the Cirque Fernandoâ€ť is as much a depiction of the circus building in which the aerial act took place as it is of the aerialist herself. Degas devoted a series of studies to this aspect of the composition, often including annotations to aid him in producing a more accurate rendering of the space. (One careful drawing of the circus architecture is inscribed â€śles fermes sont plus penchĂ©s,â€ť â€śthe rafters are more inclinedâ€ť). For more information, visit www.themorgan.org.