Works of art can provide endless inspiration for fiction. The paintings alone, with everything they convey, would be muse enough. But sometimes the story behind the painting is just as enthralling. I have always loved Edgar Degas’ paintings and I was fascinated to learn the origins of ‘Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando’, which hangs in the National Gallery in London.
I took inspiration from this true tale for my story ‘The Artist and the Acrobat’, which appears in my collection of short stories set in France, French Collection.
Miss La La was born Anna Olga Albertina Brown in 1858 in the former German city of Stettin. She was of mixed race: her father was black and her mother white. They were both circus performers and she grew up imbued with the circus atmosphere. Olga started to perform when only nine years old.
Although small in stature, Olga/Miss La La was immensely strong. By the time she was 21, she was achieving fame as a versatile acrobat. But her tour de force was as an “iron jaw performer”, suspended high in the air holding heavy objects only by her teeth. For her grand finale, she lifted with her teeth a wheeled cannon, which was then fired.
Combined with her incredible feats of strength, Miss La La’s exotic lineage made her a very sought-after performer. She was billed variously as “The Venus of the Tropics”, “The Black Venus” and “The African Princess”.
Publicists and theatre directors exploited legends about Miss La La having been an African princess captured and sold into slavery. However, far from being a downtrodden and exploited minor performer, the evidence is that she was an astute businesswoman with a clear idea of her worth and talents.
Edgar Degas’ studio in Montmartre, Paris, was close to the Cirque Fernando, where Miss La La appeared December 1878-January 1879. He watched Miss La La’s act on a number of occasions before embarking on the painting. It was technically a difficult work to achieve because of the proportions and perspective of the theatre.
Miss La La often appeared with her acrobatic partner Miss Kaira (real name Theophila Szterker), who died following a terrible fall in 1888. There is evidence that Degas invited them both to his studio to sit for him. His friend, the novelist Edmond de Concourt, was present. This event and the final unveiling of the painting form the core of my story.
Art historians have long debated the place of Degas’ painting of Miss La La in his oeuvre. The work is idiosyncratic and a far cry from the traditional portraiture of the day.
Degas’ attitudes to race and women were probably ambivalent. He had Creole ancestry but operated in a society where racism was endemic. Apparently, he painted only one other black or mixed-race woman. And he certainly became increasingly anti-Semitic. Degas remained celibate and possibly got off on the idea that Miss La La and Kaira may have been life, as well as stage, partners. A lot of this is conjecture, but there’s no doubt that his painting is the tip of the iceberg.
Here’s a short extract from ‘The Artist and the Acrobat’, where Miss La La has received a note from Degas, inviting her and Kaira to his studio.
Miss La La stood for a moment looking at her reflection in the mirror, turning her strong-boned, coffee-tinted face this way and that. Yes, that would be just right: a painting with a background of soft, pastel shades framing her in the centre, full-face, flashing her famous teeth and posing in all her strapping glory. No one could call her vain, but she was the best acrobat in Europe, without a doubt.
“Do you think he’d mind if you brought a friend?” Kaira asked.
Miss La La switched her gaze to Kaira. “Hmm. Well, I don’t know…”
“You could say I’m your chaperone. The manager won’t allow you to go anywhere without me.”
“You don’t look much like a chaperone. And anyway, I hardly need one.” Miss La La flexed her biceps.
Kaira chuckled. “Oh, go on. I just want to see what happens.”
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