“Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando,” by Edgar Degas, 1879, pastel on paper, 24 x 18 3/4 in.

For several successive evenings in January 1879, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) made graphite drawings and pastel paintings during performances by a famous aerialist known as Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando in Paris. Those on-site studies and the resulting studio painting are on view at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.

“Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando,” by Edgar Degas, 1879, black chalk with touches of pastel, 18 1/2 x 12 5/8 in.

Edgar Degas immortalized Miss La La’s breathtaking acrobatics — she was hoisted to the 70-foot ceiling of the Cirque Fernando by a rope clenched between her teeth — in his painting “Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando.” 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 Degas’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.

“Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando,” 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 La’s astonishing feat, rather than her physical likeness. The preparatory drawings and pastels in the exhibition reveal his steadfast avoidance of Miss La La’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.

“Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando,” ca. 1880, albumen silver print, 15 7/16 x 11 5/16 in. Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University.

“Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando” 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 “les fermes sont plus penchés,” “the rafters are more inclined”). For more information, visit www.themorgan.org.


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