Edgar Degas was fascinated by the modern city and its places of entertainment, notably the opera house, the racetrack, and the circus. In these venues, he sought out unusual perspectives and extremes of movement: the subject of this drawing offered him both.
The Cirque Fernando opened its doors in 1875 in the Pigalle neighborhood, a hotspot for Parisian nightlife and progressive art. Degas lived nearby, as did Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Georges Seurat, all of whom painted pictures of the Cirque Fernando. It was there that Degas watched a famous aerialist known as “Miss La La” in January 1879. Born Olga Brown in 1858 in what is today Poland, this biracial performer toured France and England under a variety of stage names (the Venus of the Tropics, the African Princess) calculated to appeal to European notions of “exotic” beauty. She was a virtuoso performer. Her act included various feats of strength and agility, but its climax involved being hoisted high in the air by means of a pulley, a rope, and a specially fitted dental device. This is the feat Degas portrayed here.
He was so captivated by Miss La La’s performance that he returned night after night to sketch her, producing a series of life studies that culminated in an oil painting, shown at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition later that year. Each of the studies is inscribed with the date when Degas made it (in this case, January 21, 1879), probably working in black pastel from his seat at the circus and then adding other colors once back in his studio. With its dramatic perspective, glowing palette, and only vague suggestion of Miss La La’s suspension device, this drawing conveys a sense of the soaring, splendid, hands-free effect she achieved in her performances.