Miss Lala was a circus performer famous throughout Europe for her amazing feats of strength. She was born in 1858, was christened Olga Kaira, and she started performing at the age of 9. She was a tightrope walker, a trapeze artist and an accomplished acrobat. In this picture, she is being hoisted up towards the roof of the circus with a rope, which passes over a pulley. She is supporting her entire body weight by gripping the end of the rope with her teeth
In February 1879, she came to London to perform at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster. In an amazing act of showmanship, she progressed from suspending a boy, a woman and then a man from her jaw, while hanging upside down. The finale was described in a newspaper at the time:
‘Her great feat, and that which should undoubtedly prove the sensation, comes at the end of her share of the entertainment. Six men strain their muscles to lift to her a cannon of no mean dimensions. This also she supports by her teeth alone, never leaving her hold even when, the match being applied, the gun is fired and gives a tremendous report.’
The Cirque Fernando was built in 1875 in Paris, near Degas’ home. Degas does not focus on her as an individual, as he was more interested in capturing the spectacle of her body as she flew through the air. If you look closely, you can see that her arms and legs run parallel to the lines of the roof and the rope. Miss Lala is deliberately off centre. Degas was inspired by Japanese prints, which often placed their main subjects to one side and cropped them in dramatic ways.
He made many preparatory sketches for this painting, including oils, pastels and pencil sketches. An x-ray of this painting shows that Degas struggled to achieve the correct perspective for the roof. The x-ray shows that the figure of Lala was unchanged, but that the beams of the roof have been altered. The x-ray reveals three separate roof beams, which would have been his first attempt to paint the roof. Perhaps he decided that three beams would have crowded the composition with too much architectural detail. The two beams we can see in the painting are painted over the top.
When Walter Sickhart, an artist, visited the artist’s studio in the Rue Pigalle, Montmartre, he describes how Degas, ‘ had been unable to solve the problem of the perspective and had hired a professional for the drawing of the architecture of the ceiling.’