Edgar Degas, Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas, New Orleans Museum of Art.
Edgar Degas, Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas, New Orleans Museum of Art.

During his time abroad, Edgar Degas found inspiration in the vibrant city of New Orleans, capturing the essence of Creole family life and a city recovering from the aftermath of war. His paintings from this period not only showcase his talent but also shed light on a lesser-known aspect of his artistic journey. Let’s delve into the fascinating world of Edgar Degas and his connection to New Orleans.

The Roots of Family History

Unlike most Impressionist painters who were associated with the New World, Edgar Degas was the only artist to set foot in the United States and create work there. His deep connection to this land can be traced back to his family’s roots. Degas’s mother, Celestine, hailed from a Creole family of French and Spanish settlers who established themselves in New Orleans. The book, titled “Degas and New Orleans,” explores the intimate connections between the black and white branches of his maternal home.

Edgar’s fascination with Louisiana was nurtured by his mother’s stories and the visits from his grandfather, Germain Musson, who shared news of their relatives and friends in the United States. The young artist dreamt of one day setting foot on the land of his ancestors. It wasn’t until 1872, at the age of 38, that Edgar finally had the opportunity to fulfill his dream. With the persuasion of his brother, René, Edgar embarked on a journey to Louisiana.

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Life in the Enchanting New Orleans

Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Edgar Degas was captivated by the city’s beauty. In a letter to his friend James Tissot, he described his admiration for the picturesque scenes he encountered. From black women cradling their white babies in pillared houses surrounded by trees to the bustling streets filled with fruit vendors and elegant ladies, the vibrant imagery of New Orleans made a lasting impression on Degas.

While staying in New Orleans, Edgar resided in one of his uncle Michel’s beautiful white houses on Esplanade Boulevard. He established a routine that involved visiting the family office, reading newspapers, and writing letters to his friends and colleagues in France. Degas spent peaceful afternoons chatting with his family, embracing his curiosity about their lives. He also tried to imitate the southern accents he encountered, adding a touch of humor to his experiences.

Capturing the Essence of Family

During his stay in New Orleans, Edgar Degas created captivating portraits of his family members. Despite the challenges of working and living with his family, Degas responded to their requests and painted tender and captivating portraits. His cousin Estelle often appeared in his paintings, and one of his most successful portraits, “Mrs. René De Gas,” captured her with a pregnant belly hidden beneath a floating skirt. The painting reflected Degas’s introspection on motherhood, a subject deeply influenced by the loss of his own mother, Celestine.

A Broken Family and Unfinished Business

Degas’s time in New Orleans was not without its share of trials. The peaceful colors that dominated his works from this period contrasted with the familial unrest that unfolded. In 1873, René, Edgar’s brother, left Estelle for their neighbor, America Durrive Olivier. This upheaval led to a rift between Edgar and René, resulting in years of silence between them. Estelle and her children reverted to her maiden name, Musson.

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Perhaps one of Degas’s most famous works from his time in the South, “A Cotton Office in New Orleans,” depicts the family business on the brink of bankruptcy. As Degas diligently painted the scene, his efforts to save the business proved futile. Although the artwork portrays a scene of financial disaster, Degas chose to omit the African-American porters who played significant roles in the cotton industry. Some speculate that Degas’s poor eyesight hindered his ability to see them clearly, while others believe it reflected the complexities of the Musson family’s mixed lineage and their involvement with the Crescent City White League.

A New Direction and Lasting Impact

Despite his brief stay in New Orleans, Edgar Degas’s experience in the city influenced his artistic career significantly. Inspired by the everyday life he encountered, Degas decided to depart from painting popular historical subjects and instead focused on capturing the essence of dancers, musicians, and café patrons. This shift marked the beginning of his mastery of impressionism.

As we delve deeper into Edgar Degas’s family history and explore the works he created during his time in New Orleans, we gain a new perspective on the complexities of the city’s history. Degas’s paintings not only showcase his talent but also represent a momentous period in his artistic journey. To learn more about Edgar Degas and his connection to New Orleans, visit Caravansarai.