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  • Writer's pictureVingt Sept

National Gallery presents Degas's impressionist painting of mixed race subject Miss La La


Edgar Degas Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879 Oil on canvas, 117.2 × 77.5 cm London, The National Gallery

Next summer (June 2024), as part of the National Gallery’s free Discover series, Degas’s Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879, will take centre stage. This landmark impressionist painting will record an extraordinary moment and features a remarkable sitter – the circus artist Miss La La, or Anna Albertine Olga Brown (1858-1945). This exhibition will take a closer look at Degas’ painting and will reveal new information about her life and career to the public for the first time.

In January 1879 French painter Edgar Degas attended performances at the newly built Cirque Fernando in Paris. There, he was mesmerised by the dexterity and technical prowess of star acrobat Miss La La, full of poise and grace, and about to reach international fame. Degas made her the subject of one of his most original and arresting paintings, capturing her in one of her most striking and perilous acts – when, suspended from a rope clenched between her teeth, she spirals towards the circus ceiling.

Among all other works shown at the 4th Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in April 1879, a few weeks after its completion, the painting is no doubt one of the most uncompromisingly daring and modern. Reunited for this exhibition, a significant ensemble of Degas’s preparatory drawings will show him at work, observing and sketching this remarkably talented sitter.

Born in Szczecin (now Poland) to a white Prussian mother and Black American father, Miss La La’s racial identity, both as a performer and a person, will be addressed in the exhibition. Showcasing recent research into Black models, the exhibition will restore Miss La La’s name– Anna Albertine Olga Brown, redressing the historic loss of the identities of non-white sitters. A selection of posters will attest to Miss La La’s brilliant career, the extent of which had until recently not been fully grasped – and her immense success in France, England and way beyond.

The exhibition will also look at how Degas himself represented and related to people of colour. Although he was himself the son of a Creole mother (of European descent) and was fascinated by the ethnic diversity he saw during his stay in New Orleans in 1872-73, Degas is believed to have only painted two works representing people of colour. Drawing on recent academic research, a section of the show will investigate his complex relationship to the representation of race.

Featuring new material, from rare, hitherto untraced drawings of her by Degas, to entirely unpublished photographic portraits, the exhibition casts a frank, direct light on Anna Albertine Olga Brown, while inviting us to look afresh at the painting Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando. Its particular resonance today will be emphasised, engaging our visitors with an inspirational story not previously told at the National Gallery.

This is the third in a series of ‘Discover’ exhibitions, which explore lesser-known masterpieces in a new light. Other exhibitions in this series include Discover Manet & Eva Gonzales and Discover Liotard & The Lavergne Family Breakfast.

The Sunley Room exhibition programme is supported by the Bernard Sunley Foundation.

Exhibition runs from 6 June - 1 September 2024

For more information visit National Gallery


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