Art & Identity in New Orleans

HNRS 109 Spring '18

A Painting of New Orleans: The American World of a French Artist

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Edgar Degas was an incredible artist by any standard. A world-renowned painter, he was born in France, and he spent most of his life living and working there. However, for a brief period of time, he lived in the city of New Orleans in a tumultuous United States, and it contributed greatly to his art. He brought inspiration back with him to France when he left, and living in New Orleans was apparently a formative experience for him, however brief his time there was. The home in which he stayed is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is the only residence or studio in the world that is related to him and that is open to the public. While it is hidden away, the New Orleanian people are proud of having a connection with the famous artist, perhaps in no small part because he was French; French culture has deep roots in New Orleans. Exploring his importance to the city is best done by discussing why he came there and the historical events of the time, looking at his work to compare it to later art he did after returning to France, and comparing his work to that of other artists who were in New Orleans during his residency. By answering these questions, it is possible to speculate what influence Degas discovered in New Orleans that so greatly inspired his career.

During the period of time in which Degas was away from France, political tensions ran high both in his home country and in the United States, where the Civil War had just recently come to an end and the nation was in the midst of the particularly contentious Reconstruction period. In New Orleans especially, Reconstruction was a difficult time, because civil rights were hanging in the balance and the city was under constant threat of military occupation by the federal government because they refused to behave and abide by the rules of the Reconstruction period that were intended to rebuild the states. In fact, they had been occupied near the start of the war. For the Degas family living there, the Reconstruction era was personal, because they were at the front of the resistance. When Edgar Degas came to New Orleans in the fall of 1872, it was to stay with this extended American branch of his family, including his two younger brothers. His mother had been born in the city, and he had lost her at a young age but still retained the connection between his mother and New Orleans. He saw himself as tangentially Louisianan, and so visiting his family was a sort of homecoming for him. As a prominent Creole family, they had both black and white relatives, creating an interesting divide of identity that was all too common in New Orleans. The political conflict of the Reconstruction era created a venue for art in many forms, a stage that Degas joined. In particular, authors were drawn there to do their work, including Kate Chopin, the author of The Awakening.

This political chaos in America also mirrored that of France, as the Franco-Prussian War and the terrifying reign of the Paris Commune had just come to an end. Edgar Degas had served during the war, so it was directly personal for him in much the same way that the results of the Civil War were personal for his family. By escaping his native France, he was placing himself into a mecca of culture in a different war-torn nation that was deeply influential for his art, because he found the differences in culture and life between America and France to be fascinating. A great deal of art is inspired by tragedy and misery, and the art of New Orleans is no exception; a huge number of artists were inspired by the turmoil there. The purpose for Degas’ travel was very much a retreat, but the work he produced in a shifting and confused city shaped his life’s work after his return to France.

The art that was done by Degas while he was in New Orleans was formative for his later career. One of his famous works, titled A Cotton Office in New Orleans, depicts his brothers Rene and Achille in his uncle Michel Musson’s cotton brokerage, learning about the brokerage’s bankruptcy in an everyday scene in the life of the city. It was this painting that launched him to fame, as it was his first work that was purchased by a museum and transformed him from a classic “starving artist” to a successful impressionist painter. It was also his only painting that was purchased by a museum during his lifetime. Interestingly, this painting portrays the tragedy of the times in a subtle way, through the coloring of the painting, which carries the implication of depression and tragedy and masterfully conveys the exact mood of the scene without explicitly showing anything out of the ordinary. This is a trademark characteristic of the impressionist movement, which Degas was able to join chiefly because of the style he developed in America. A Cotton Office in New Orleans happened by happenstance, because Degas had been struggling with finding inspiration for his work during most of his brief sojourn. While he had been painting portraits of his many extended family members, and he had fallen in love with the scenery of New Orleans, it wasn’t enough. However, he held a certain admiration for his uncle’s business and the involvement of his brothers, and there was something about the mundanity of it that drew him to it. The painting captures the business of a cotton exchange, but it also paints a bit of a false impression of his family’s financial state, as Michel Musson’s exchange was not in fact the busy and bustling place that Degas sketched on canvas. Rather, it went bankrupt before the painting was even completed, and the men of the family each coped with this in different ways. One of Edgar’s brothers shot a man, his other brother had an illicit affair, and his uncle never associated with the brothers again. Even though it seems to portray the perfect image of an American place of business painted through the eyes of a European man, and it was extremely popular back in France, it carries a hidden lie. Although the culture of France is known for being somewhat tragic and depressing, Degas’ work when he returned to Paris was equally as deceptive as his imagining of his uncle’s failing business office.

The ballerinas that Degas painted, sketched, and sculpted are equally romantic and sad. In nineteenth-century France, the dancers of the Parisian opera were often extremely poor and barely staying alive, dancing to support and feed their families. Many also engaged in prostitution and other illicit activities; although they lived in a ‘romantic’ era of writing and art, their lives were far from lovely. Because of this unfortunate fact, the little, delicate ballerinas who modeled for Degas were hiding a life of struggling to make ends meet. This is a style that Degas seems to have developed from the work he developed in New Orleans, and it is also inspired by the everyday and the mundane, also much like the paintings he did while in America. Unlike the other impressionists, he focused his work on indoor scenes, which set him apart from his peers while contributing to the interesting sense of the everyday. There is something that is captured in a painting of the indoors that is different from the outside. It is easier to create a picture of daily life as it happens indoors, because most people live the majority of their lives inside and the outdoors are somewhat whimsical and ‘other’ in comparison. Of course, because Degas was the only significant impressionist to paint the things he saw in America, he stands apart in that way as well. The dark colors he used were distinctive and showed his unusual style in painting. These colors are used in his New Orleans work and also for his paintings of the dancers, which suggests a connected style that he developed while abroad.

Another painting of Degas that was done while he was in New Orleans was a portrait of his cousin Estelle Musson, who married his brother Rene. The colors of her portrait are also muted and dark, with only sketched details in her face and body. Her face is also loosely painted in much the same style as the men in A Cotton Office in New Orleans, and the dancers have similar facial features that are clearly derived from the same technique. Later portraits done by Degas, including Portrait of a Young Woman (ca 1885) not only have similar technique in the painting of face and body, but also use almost the exact same color palette and angles in posing. Degas also used an interesting combination of mediums for his work throughout his career, which contributes to the strange and unusual ‘texture’ of his art. The work he did was somehow flat while also being lifelike because of the coloring and the physical texture of the pastels and oils he used. The poses in which he painted his models are similar as well. In looking at the various portraits he did throughout his career, it is clear to see that his scenes of studios filled with ballet dancers are arranged in a fashion reminiscent of A Cotton Office in New Orleans. One of his famous works, called The Ballet Class, has nearly the exact same perspective and angle of a room with walls of the same pale green shade and the figures on the canvas posed across the room in a way that echoes his imagining of the southern city. A window in the cotton office is in the same position as a window in the dance studio and the dance master stands in the same position as a man in New Orleans with an oddly similar face. One might even say that Degas plagiarized himself, though it would not be considered as such in the world of art. All of these signs point to a clear correlation between his early and later work. Obviously, New Orleans directed Degas a great deal, and it is no coincidence that the painting he did later in his life was so heavily dependent on his formative time in America.

The other artists who were doing their work in New Orleans were many, and a large number of them were also inspired by the turmoil of the post-Civil War era. Achille Perelli, for example, was an important sculptor in New Orleans. A great deal of his work was inspired by nature, but he is famous in this southern city because he was the creator of several statues of Civil War Confederate military leaders. He was the first sculptor to be commissioned for this task in New Orleans. It was Perelli who was responsible for busts of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in 1872, which coincided with Degas’ stay. He also did a full statue of Stonewall Jackson, which was placed in Metairie Cemetery. The two artists do not seem to have had any relation or contact, but the fact remains that their art was intimately related to important parts of life in New Orleans after the end of the war.

Kate Chopin did her work in New Orleans as well, and there is no denying that the style of her writing is impressionistic. It takes a great deal of skill to write a novel without explicitly stating many of the important plot points. For example, the suicide of Edna Pontelier in the last few pages of The Awakening is not written, it is painted in words. The reader is never specifically told that Edna died, but left to imagine the conclusion for themselves. Many of the techniques Chopin uses to describe her story are impressionistic, which lends strong feelings rather than simple statements to her writing. Chopin had a personal relationship with Degas as well, as they were contemporaries and inspiration for each other. Another author like this was George Washington Cable, who was a cotton clerk and had fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. This placed him on the losing side of both a war and a failing profession, as the cotton industry was not doing well, which can of course be seen in Degas’ painting. Cable’s work beyond the cotton industry was largely influenced by the Creole culture of New Orleans, something that deeply touched Degas as well, purely by virtue of his family having Creole heritage. It raises some possibly inspirational themes for Degas, because the Creole culture was a part of everyday life in New Orleans, much like the cotton industry that gave Degas his much-needed dose of inspiration.

There is no denying that Edgar Degas was an extraordinary painter and an artist well-deserving of the respect he has been given since his death. The city of New Orleans celebrates him and his time there with the Degas House on Esplanade Avenue, which is the house where he lived for his five month stay. In much the same way that the city is inspired by him, he was inspired by it, something that is clear in the painting he did. He achieved his distinctive style from the work he did while in America; of that, there can be no doubt. It is simply too much to assume that he was not inspired in seeing the daily life of the city, and so it can be concluded that the technique for which he became renowned began to flourish there—perhaps it was even planted by New Orleans. The fact that so many other artists were inspired by New Orleans during the same time period is not surprising, and in fact, their work became a major part of the culture there. While it is impossible to definitively claim what specific events and aspects of American life inspired Degas, it is safe to assume that it was partly the Creole culture, partly the intrigue of an American city in such a pivotal point in its history, and perhaps even partly the work of other artists. In much the same way that artists have been inspired by Hurricane Katrina and its devastation, artists were inspired by the Reconstruction era. Of course, artists inspire one another as much as they are drawn in by the landscape or the people, so it is logical to say that all of the different artists that were working in New Orleans during the lifetime of Degas drew on each other to contribute to an arts scene that remains important to the life of the city even today.

Works Cited

“Biography of Edgar Degas.” Edgar Degas The Complete Works, https://www.edgar-degas.org/biography.html. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.

“Degas in New Orleans.” , old-new-orleans.com/NO_Degas.html. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.

“Degas Style and Technique.” Edgar Degas, www.degas-painting.info/degasstyle.htm. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.

“Estelle Musson and Rene De Gas.” Degas’ Cousin and Brother, www.degaslegacy.com/5degascousinbrother.html. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.

“Portrait of a Young Woman.” The Met, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436153. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.

“Portrait of Estelle Musson, Madame Rene de Gas.” Edgar Degas The Complete Works, https://www.edgar-degas.org/Portrait-Of-Estelle-Musson-Madame-Rene-De-Gas.html. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.

“The Cotton Exchange, New Orleans by Edgar Degas.” Edgar Degas Paintings, Biography, and Quotes, www.edgar-degas.net/the-cotton-exchange-new-orleans.jsp. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.

“The History of Degas.” Degas, 1999, www.nola.com/speced/degas/history.html. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.

Benfey, Christopher. “Degas in New Orleans.” Books, 1997, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/first/b/benfey-degas.html. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.

Dobie, Ann B. “Achille Perelli.” Know Louisiana, www.knowlouisiana.org/entry/achille-perelli. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.

Richardson, Thomas J. “George Washington Cable, 1844-1925.” Documenting the American South, docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/cablecreole/bio.html. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.

Vella, Christina. “Edgar Degas.” Know Louisiana, www.knowlouisiana.org/entry/edgar-degas. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018.

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