Although petite in stature, the delicate Miss La La possessed astonishing strength. Born April of 1858 in what is now Poland, she performed in circuses and music halls across Europe. Her graceful aesthetic was more akin to Cirque du Soleil than Ringling Brothers. Her versatile repertoire included wire walking, trapeze acrobatics, strength balancing and iron jaw routines. Miss La La started her career at the age of nine or ten. At 21, she soared to fame when Edgar Degas immortalized her in his painting Miss La La At the Cirque Fernando. In it he captured her rising nearly 70 feet above her audience, supported only by a rope clenched between her teeth.
Miss La La was known by many names. Capturing her exotic mixed racial traits, she became Olga the Negress, Venus of the Tropics, African Princess, and Olga the Mulatto. It is believed that her real name was Olga Kaira or Kaire. Her sister who died three years before she was born was named Olga Marie Brown.
She performed from the late 1860s until 1888. Early on she was a star attraction of the traveling Troupe Kaira, along with Theophila Szterker a.k.a. Kaira la Blanche (1864-88). These astonishing performers often partnered in their acts. Together they were The Two Butterflies – Les Deux Papillions.
We have few images documenting the mechanics of Miss La La’s acts. But we can glean some details from posters, drawings, newspaper reports and other written accounts. We also know some details from other aerialists including Leona Dare who also performed jaws of steel acts.
Miss La La made her ascent to the roof or tent top with the aid of a two-inch-wide leather and metal strap that had a mouthpiece known as an iron jaw at one end. In her teeth she gripped that mouthpiece with its metal hook extending from the other end.
As a solo act, she would typically hang from a hook attached to the trapeze bar or a rope by clamping the iron jaw in her teeth. Her head would be upright. A swivel device allowed her to spin in mid-air.
Working with a partner, one would hang upside down with her legs hooked at the back of her knees over the trapeze bar as she gripped the mouthpiece between her teeth. A special strap allowed her to suspend one or more people from a second trapeze. The delicate Miss La La kept everyone from falling to their death with nothing but her nerves and jaws of steel.
Miss La La also earned the name of The Cannon Woman or La Mulatresse-Canon while holding a 150-pound civil war cannon in her teeth. The cannon was then fired, sending her body twisting and turning in mid-air.
By the second half of the 19th century, elegant circus was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Paris next to opera and theater. The Cirque Fernando opened in Montmartre in the 1870s under the direction of great equestrian Ferdinand Beert, also known as Fernando. The venue attracted stylish crowds, including many artists.
In January of 1879, Edgar Degas attended several of Miss La La’s performances at the Cirque Fernando. Rather than showing her from audience level, he portrayed her as she was hoisted upwards to the famous domed roof.
He produced multiple studies of Miss La La from several directions as well as the building itself in pastels and oils. In his final painting we see Miss La La rising like a butterfly. Our perspective is the same as the audience would have seen her as all gazed toward heaven. The result was as spectacular as the woman herself. Only a few months after Degas experienced her performances, his Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando was exhibited at the fourth Impressionist exhibition in April 1879
A 2013 exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum examined the story behind the famed painting by Degas on loan from the National Gallery, London. The retrospective included the final work as well as preparatory drawings and sketches that revealed the artist’s creative process. In an early drawing he showed the popular aerialist from her front, a view that lacked the power of the final painting.
The final side view chosen by Degas shows her bending her knees and extending her arms to counterbalance the torque and pressure of the rope lifting her. It’s a graceful pose, but also one that would most likely have relieved some of the intense pressure she must have endured on her jaw and neck.
According to Linda Wolk-Simon and Charles W. Engelhard, Curator and Head of the Department of Drawings and Prints, “Degas’s preparatory drawings and pastels in the exhibition reveal his steadfast avoidance of Miss La La’s facial features, and his choice to focus instead on her muscular limbs, shimmering costume, tuft of black hair, and timeless, frozen pose of suspension.”
The more pragmatic matter of the great performer’s “jaws of steel” apparatus appears in one of Degas’s sketches. In a letter to his friend, writer Edmond Goncourt, Degas says that Miss La La visited Degas’s studio, which was located on rue Fontaine, close to the Cirque Fernando. Goncourt’s novel set in the world of the circus was published weeks after Degas completed his painting.
The nearly 70-foot high 16-sided polygon of the Cirque Fernando was a technical challenge to Degas, according to the show’s curators.
“Degas was so daunted by the building’s steeply-viewed architecture that he enlisted a specialist to assist him with this aspect of the composition. …Revealing Degas’s repeated, unsatisfactory attempts to render the angled trusses, columns, and other architectural elements he had assiduously studied in his notebook; indeed, it appears that he delineated the roof beams no fewer than three times.”
Miss La La quit performing in 1888, the same year her partner plummeted to her death. The ladies of steel floated through the air. Night after night, they concealed fear, exertion and physical discomfort. These ethereal butterflies paid a very high price for admiration.
The same year her partner died, she quit performing and married Emanuel Woodson, an American contortionist. Together they had three children. He later managed the Palais d’être circus in Brussels. She became Anna Woodson a.k.a. Olga Woodson. The last known date of her life came from a U.S. passport application filed in 1919. Thanks to Edgar Degas, she lives forever, floating in the great arched dome of the Cirque Ferando.
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