French Impressionism in New Orleans, Louisiana

By Hall Groat II

When one thinks of Degas, intimate views of young Parisian bathers and ballerinas come to mind. These are the subjects that Degas is famous for. His main focus during a large segment of his career was on capturing the elegance, beauty, and intimacy, of the ballerina and Parisian bather. It is only natural after being exposed to so many of these great works to question his inspiration. Why did Degas spend so much of his time obsessively studying, through painting, drawing, and even sculpting, these young female forms?

It is in New Orleans that another side of Degas is revealed – his relationship with, and deep affection for, his family.

A Cotton Office in New Orleans     
1872-73    Oil on Canvas

In the autumn of 1872, the French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas traveled to New Orleans to visit his family. The Parisian painter had many relatives in the city of his mother’s birth. It was in this world far from Paris, that Degas created some of his most introspective and sensitive works of his career. The New Orleans Museum of Art has brought together these works, drawn from various public and private collections throughout the world into an exhibit titled Degas And New Orleans: A French Impressionist in America (through August of 1999). What makes this exhibition unique and appealing is the fact that Degas was the first French Impressionist to create a series of works in America.

"Painting directly from life instead of from drawings seems to give Degas’ work a looser and less academic appearance"

Upon entering the exhibition, it is very evident that the New Orleans Museum of Art has spent countless hours organizing this show. Similar to many contemporary art museums, the NOMA takes the visitor on an adventure or a ride. The influences of Post-Modern views and practices are noticeable in every aspect of how the exhibit is presented. In some senses, the NOMA has gone to the extreme of organizing an art show that is similar to any one of the popular educational rides at the Epcot Center at Disney World. Patrons are directed to a large room that is filled with massive sepia toned photographs of New Orleans during 1872 and then, five minutes later, channeled through a entrance into a large auditorium to view a documentary film. The film, in a very whimsical and entertaining way, presents an abbreviated synopsis of Degas’ life leading up to his sojourn to New Orleans. The final footage is of Degas stepping out from the steam engine after his four day journey from New York City and, to his astonishment, finding all of his relatives there waiting to greet him. At this point on the ride, visitors are directed to another room and given an audio headset to guide them through the galleries that contain Degas’ work.

Unlike many museums in other areas of the United States, visitors at the NOMA are respectful in a very conscious manner of how they view the artwork. They circulate very slowing and quietly through the show, being careful not to spend too much time standing in front of any work and blocking the next person’s view. In the third gallery I overheard a man softly say to a women, "Would you like to take my place on this bench, I think I’ve had enough rest – what do you think of the Degas works?" Their softspokeness seems to be indicative of a certain reverence. In many museum exhibitions viewers seem to be in a rush to see the artwork, often pushing or squeezing through groups of people in an obnoxious manner, and often blurting out the most ludicrous comments. It was recently at the Monet exhibit at the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, New York, where I was startled by a young women yelling out very brashly, "Oh, Henry those purple flecks in the water around those waterlillies would look lovely over our new couch." You won’t witness this at the NOMA!

The exhibition is arranged into sections, each representing a different era in his career. It begins with what Degas was creating at home in Paris immediately before his trip to New Orleans. Then it highlights his journey to America, the Mussons (his Creole relatives) visits to France, his residence in New Orleans, his three female cousins, his extended family in New Orleans, family sickness, the Cotton Office, and the artistic endeavors immediately following his departure from New Orleans. The first gallery is titled "Degas’ Family In Paris", and is a magnificent introduction to the Degas lineage. Covering one entire wall is a family tree diagram, consisting of framed black and white photographs that are interconnected. At the very top Degas’ natural grandfather, Germain Musson, is seen portrayed as very noble and proud.

In this gallery, Degas’   relationship with his family is felt in his exquisite portrayal of his brother, Rene` Degas. This work is painted in a classical tonal style, with great sensitivity towards detail and expression. Edgar must have viewed his brother as an individual that possessed great confidence and poise. Rene`was truly a nobleman. This is seen through the confident and powerful gaze of the eyes, and the upward tilt and angle of the head. Directly across the room is a small, but very compelling self-portrait. In both of these works, the viewer can sense the airs of the individuals. The Degas self-portrait is my favorite in the first gallery.

Moving through to the second gallery, one is confronted by the large, bold, wall text: Degas On The eve Of New Orleans. Immediately adjacent to the wall text are eleven sketches of an Englishman that Degas completed in his sketchbook on his voyage to New Orleans from Liverpool, England on a steamship named Scotia. The following text is located above the sketches: "Crossing on board an English ship is sad. It has been dull for me because I could not profit from some of the conversations Rene’engaged in, dumb as I am, [In English]" The eleven sketches of the Englishman are whimsical, possessing an animated feeling – unlike anything else in the exhibit. It could be conjected that Degas’ inability to communicate well in English caused him to return the basic style of drawing that he used as a young boy.

The third gallery seems to act as a transitional room, from Degas’ life in Paris to life in New Orleans. Printed directly over head on the wall is the introductory text: "Everything attracts me here. I look at everything … white houses with colors of fluted wood and in gardens of orange trees and the ladies in muslin against the fronts of their little houses and the steamboats with two chimneys as tall factory chimneys and the fruit vendors with their shops full to bursting." Extending the full length of the far wall is a replication of the double galleried suburban villa at 2306 Esplanade Avenue where Degas lived during his visit. One can almost visualize Edgar on the front porch standing in front of his French easel painting his cousin Estelle. Directly across from the fašade is a street directory map of New Orleans during 1878. To the right is an actual architectural plan for the Musson home, and a large photograph of Esplanade St., depicting all of the homes during that time. Positioned on either end of the gallery are actual gas street lamps from the 1870’s. These objects give the viewer a flavor of life in New Orleans during the 1870’s, and prepare the visitor for what awaits in the next four rooms.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth galleries present work that is representative of Degas’ sojourn in New Orleans. Once again the visitor is confronted by the bold wall text, "Nothing is as difficult as doing family portraits. To make a cousin sit for you and feeding an imp of two months is quite hard work. To get you children to pose on the steps is another job of work which doubles the fatigues of the first." In gallery four the most compelling and striking painting is titled Children on a Doorstep. In this piece one can clearly sense Degas’ frustration in painting his young cousins. However, this ironically seems to work in his favor. Children who have trouble remaining still seem to lend themselves to a very free, loose, and unconfined work of art. In this piece, the people and objects have a sense of being discovered, destroyed (through scraping the paint from the canvas), and then rediscovered (through painting the figures once again). A sense of movement is actually felt in this work – very different from many of Degas’ Parisian horse paintings that are completed from on-sight sketches. Painting directly from life instead of from drawings seems to give Degas’ work a looser and less academic appearance. In the far corner of the room are a Meridienne plant and two side chairs. The intricate patterns in the upholstery of these chairs very cleverly echo the patterns used in the background of the painting called The Son and Rehearsal.

Even though historians tend to group Degas in with the French Impressionists, such as Monet and Renior, did not techinically paint in the Impressionist style. The work found in the gallery five, however, possesses the closet resemblance to French Impressionism. Similar to the open and loose brushwork of Children on a Doorstep, the works in this room are free, moving, and filled with color. Of all the works in the exhibit these paintings are the most expressive and emotional. A sense of Degas’ affinity with his cousin, Estelle, and his Aunt Odile, is strongly felt throughout this gallery. Most prominent of these works is Portrait of Estelle. In this piece Degas’ empathetic side is revealed. Estelle was blind, and Degas’ suffered from chronically inflamed conjunctiva. In this portrait of Estelle it is as if Degas has placed himself in the scene that he was painting. His awareness and understanding of the situation is sensed.

Estelle is depicted in a room arranging flowers in a vase. The delicate and sensitive gestures of her hands in completing this task reveal a heightened sense of touch that is developed by those who are blind.

"There is no doubt that Edgar Degas had the ability to deal with a variety of subject matter through painting and drawing"

Gallery number six is the smallest. However, within it is the most significant and most well known work that Degas completed while in New Orleans, titled A Cotton Office in New Orleans. The work is accompanied by the text: "One does nothing here, it lies in the climate, nothing but cotton. This work depicts the activities on a typical day at the office in the cotton factory that Degas’ uncle, Michael Musson, founded. In this piece Degas reverts back to the more restrained approach to realistic (neo-classical painting). However, this work is masterful in the way figures are composed within a deep space. Similar to Children on a Doorstep, the viewer is carefully lead back into a deep space through a doorway at the rear of the office. The center of interest is Michael Musson, who is positioned off center in the foreground, facing the viewer. Cleverly positioned to the right of him is a chair with cotton samples on it that is turned in the opposite direction – one up through the space of the room. Behind Michael is his son-in-law, Rene’, sitting nonchalantly reading a newspaper. Moving further back into space one confronts William Bell, resting on an old wooden table and showing samples of cotton to Michael Alexander Agelasto. In the background associates at work are seen: John Livaudais standing at the right making an entry into a ledger, and James Prestidge conversing with a customer. To the far left is Achille De Gas standing against a wall with his legs crossed, as if he is quietly contemplating the day’s activities. In this piece all of the subjects seem to be in deep thought – concentrating only on the job at hand.

The final gallery contains a group of works that Degas created immediately following his return to Paris. Degas stated on his return "Everything is beautiful in this world … but one Paris laundry girl, with bare arms, is worth it all for such a pronounced passion I am." The most powerful works here are Dance Class and Women Ironing. There exists an uninhibited freeness in these works – it seems as though the same verve and excitement Degas used in his works in New Orleans has manifested itself in what he was creating back in Paris.

There is no doubt that Edgar Degas had the ability to deal with a variety of subject matter through painting and drawing. However, common in all of his works is a sensitivity towards knowing when and where to understate the subject, and how to make the abstractness of the paint surface add to the work aesthetically. If you happen to be in Denmark this fall be sure to visit the Ordrupgaard Museum to see Degas if you missed him in New Orleans. The Ordrupgaard Museum was the second and only other museum to exhibit the same forty works from September 16-November 28, '99.