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Discover Degas & Miss La La

Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, ’Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando’, 1879
Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, ’Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando’, 1879

6 June – 1 September 2024

Sunley Room
Admission free

In June 2024, as part of the National Gallery’s free ‘Discover’ series, Degas’s Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879, takes centre stage. This landmark Impressionist painting records 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 attends performances at the newly built Cirque Fernando in Paris. There, he is 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 makes 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 1872‒3, Degas is believed to have only painted two works representing people of colour. Drawing on new 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


Image credits

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

The National Gallery

The National Gallery is one of the greatest art galleries in the world. Founded by Parliament in 1824, the Gallery houses the nation’s collection of paintings in the Western European tradition from the late 13th to the early 20th century. The collection includes works by Bellini, Cézanne, Degas, Leonardo, Monet, Raphael, Rembrandt, Renoir, Rubens, Titian, Turner, Van Dyck, Van Gogh and Velázquez. The Gallery’s key objectives are to enhance the collection, care for the collection and provide the best possible access to visitors. Admission free.

The Bernard Sunley Foundation

The Sunley Room was established at the National Gallery in 1984 and the Foundation has supported the exhibition programme in the Sunley Room every year since 1990. The Bernard Sunley Foundation is a family grant-making foundation which supports charities in England and Wales that deliver a real community focus and provide greater opportunities for the young, the elderly, the disabled and the disadvantaged.. 

Also on display at the National Gallery at the same time:

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Frans Hals (30 September 2023 – 21 January 2024)

Pesellino: A Renaissance Master Revealed (7 December 2023 – 10 March 2024)

’National Gallery Artist in Residence: Céline Condorelli’ (13 September 2023 – 7 January 2024)

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