Christopher S. Price 10/7/1998 One can t paint Paris and Louisiana indifferently, it would turn into a kind of Monde Illust re. Besides, one must really make a very long stay to get hold of the customs of a race, that is to say of its charm. Instantaneous impressions are merely photographic. -Edgar Hillaire Degas Edgar Germain Hillaire Degas traveled to New Orleans in the fall of 1872 to spend a brief vacation with the Creole American branch of his family. Degas visit, although only four months, resulted in a few important works, but more significantly had a great affect on the style and content of Degas work.
Degas was in a period of artistic transition during his four-month New Orleans sojourn and upon his return to Paris he completed what are considered his greatest masterpieces. Degas New Orleans visit marked an essential moment in his artistic career. Distracted and creatively stalled upon his arrival to New Orleans, he left the city with new direction and resolve. The works that Degas undertook in New Orleans both reflected the extraordinary society that Degas family belonged to and foreshadowed the new direction that his painting was headed. His artistic progression did not occur through painting the many exotic images New Orleans had to offer, but rather through capturing a social type through his portraiture. The family portraiture that Degas completed in New Orleans gives a deeper insight into the complex Creole society of New Orleans than the slick surfaces of exoticism would have allowed.
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The works that are most indicative of Degas New Orleans stay are: Mme. Renee De Gas 1872, Woman with a Vase of Flowers c. 1872, and Woman Seated Near a Balcony c. 1872, A Cotton Office in New Orleans c. 1873, Cotton Merchants in New Orleans c. 1873.
When comparing the works Degas completed before his time in New Orleans, such as Mme. Michel Musson and Her Two Daughters c. 1865, to the works created after New Orleans, suc as Absinthe c. 1876, one realizes how important his visit to New Orleans was. Degas realist style came to fruition during his sojourn in New Orleans. His realism was based around the desire to record the most characteristic traits of his models, as well as some of the more general ones of his time.
Realism meant to him not so much the faithful representation of his model, but the ability to render some of the typical aspects of his time. During his time in New Orleans, he expanded his focus from just capturing his model s appearance, to using everything within the frame of his painting to create an image of a certain social type (Feilchenfeldt pg. 50).
It was in New Orleans, where he realized how essential it is for an artist to have a grasp of his subjects customs and charm. It was also in New Orleans where he switched his focus from strict portraiture to paintings with more contemporary themes. These qualities stand out in the very Parisian works Degas painted after his stay in New Orleans.
Although Degas found New Orleans extremely visually stimulating, the paramount thing Degas gained from his trip was a new resolve to paint what he knew. No longer would Degas attempt to follow the French master, Jean Dominique Ingres, in the academic tradition of painting historical compositions (Scene of War in the Middle Ages c. 1865) and idealized portraits. Degas slowly detached himself from the influence of Ingres, which very much influenced his early works such as Portrait of Renee De Gas c. 1856 and Portrait of Achille in the Uniform of a Cadet c. 1857, and began to blend the his talents in portraiture with a realistic approach to contemporary life (Mongan pg.
Degas separation from the Ingres principles allowed his painting to go beyond the academic tradition of history painting and cultivate a style that would establish his place in the most important artistic movement of his time, Impressionism. Unlike, the other great Impressionists Degas was not a prolific outdoor air painter. Degas never concentrated on this theme thus the effects of light did not factor into his work as much as the other Impressionists. Degas longed to express the characteristic traits of his individual models, and to precisely render them he needed more than just the model s outward appearance.
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Degas artistic growth and increasing ability to capture the characteristic traits of his models is evident in the portraits he completed while in New Orleans. In his portraits of his American cousins, he goes beyond just capturing the personal traits of cousins and captures the essence of the Creole woman. His ability to capture the characteristic traits of a certain social class would appear again in his later depictions of the Parisian woman. When Degas returned from New Orleans he was resolute on creating a thoroughly contemporary Parisian art, as he created this art his work veered away from the academic tradition. Louisiana must be respected by all her children of which I am almost one. -Edgar Degas The marriage of Miss Marie-Celestine Musson of New Orleans to Auguste de Gas on July 7, 1832 created the link that would forever tie the fortunes of their descendants to New Orleans.
Marie-Celestine Musson s family was of the French Creole aristocracy that stood atop New Orleans complex social scene. The Creoles were descendants from the original founders of the city, the French and the Spanish, and considered themselves socially superior to the American arriviste’s, who arrived after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The Musson family was pleased with their daughter s marriage to Monsieur de Gas, a wealthy French banker from a family with ties to European nobility. The marriage reinforced the Musson s ties to France, their homeland, and was advantageous both socially and professionally. Marie-Celestine and Auguste resided in Paris and started a family.
The de Gas had three sons: Jean Baptiste Rene de Gas, Edgar Germaine Hillaire Degas (Edgar preferred the less pretentious spelling because he chose not to participate in the social realm. ), and Achille de Gas; and two daughters: Laure Marguerite de Gas and Marie-Therese de Gas (Mongan pgs. 28 & 29).
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New Orleans would play a significant role in the lives of all of the de Gas sons. Parisian life bored Celestine Musson; she longed for the revelry of Mardi Gras and the extravagant social life she had experienced in New Orleans. Celestine complained that in Paris she passed my life, my youth, next to the hearth, never going even once to a ball, or even to the smallest party (Benfey pg.
Edgar would later experience the social season that his mother longed for on his visit to New Orleans. Edgar lost his mother at the age of thirteen and the subject of motherhood would always be associated with a sense of mourning in his mind and in some of his greatest paintings. The ties between the de Gas sons and New Orleans were kept through their mother s brother, Henri Musson of New Orleans.
Henri Musson was named tutor of his deceased sister s children and provided them with their elementary and secondary education. However Edgar s real education occurred while accompanying his father a connoisseur of Italian art on the rounds he made with the prominent dealers and collectors of the day. It was on one of these rounds that Edgar first encountered his boyhood idol the renown champion of the French academic tradition, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (Benfey pg. 12).
Degas admired Ingres superb draftsmanship and his keen sensitivity for his subjects personality. Degas would make these same skills the outstanding trademarks in his own work.
Ingres painted historical paintings and was a master of portraiture. Degas portraits of his brothers, Renee and Achille, painted in 1856 show the strong influence the French academic had on Degas. In these portraits great attention is paid to the clothes, Achille is in the uniform of a cadet and Edgar in the traditional dress of a student. The brown tones that dominate both of these compositions are reminiscent of Ingres color schemes. Both poses of the de Gas brothers are terribly stiff and the whole attitude of these portraits is very academic.
Much of Degas work in the 1850 s and 1860 s reflect the academic style and content which was typical of Ingres. The American Civil War and the occupation of New Orleans by Union forces brought New Orleans into the awareness of the de Gas family. New Orleans, the largest and richest of all Southern cities, was the first city to fall in the Civil War. As a result, New Orleans was under the rule of Union forces for the entirety of the war. General Benjamin Butler was in command of the occupying forces and his methods of making war not just on the opposing army but on the entire populace greatly affected the Musson family.
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Butler was determined to gain respect and exact obedience from his southern subjects, in particular the white women of New Orleans. The women of New Orleans were extremely contemptuous towards the Federal soldiers and as a result Butler issued the infamous General Order Number 28, otherwise known as the Woman Order. The order stated: When any female shall, by word, gesture, or movement, insult or show any contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her vocation as a prostitute, that is. The order was criticized and protested at home and abroad and did much damage to the sympathy for the Union cause in Europe (Benfey pg. 52).
Nearly all of the women who could afford to leave New Orleans left, many departed to the Creole mother country, France.
General Butler s insulting Order was not the only crisis the Musson family dealt with during the days of the occupation. In January of 1862, Degas youngest cousin Estelle, married Lazare David Balfour, a captain in the Confederate army. Balfour was killed in the Battle of Corinth, leaving Estelle widowed and pregnant. Mme. Musson and her two daughters, Desiree and Estelle, left for Paris during the summer of 1863 (Benfey pg. 50).
Edgar Degas was delighted with the opportunity to meet with his Creole cousins. Degas correspondence with his uncle Michel Musson reflects his excitement. Your family arrived last Thursday and is now entirely our family. One could not be on better or more simple terms (Benfey pg. 53).
Degas was enchanted by his American cousins and attempted to learn English. He was particularly fascinated by the word turkey buzzard, repeating it to himself for their entire visit (McMullen pg. 139).
Degas showed a special interest in his widowed cousin Estelle. Estelle was obviously grief stricken over the death of her husband and Edgar spent much of his time trying to distract and cheer her. One cannot look at her, Degas writes, without thinking that in front of that head there are the eyes of a dying man (Benfey pg.
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His fascination with her can be traced through two portraits that he painted of her during her eighteen-month stay in France. Both of these portraits beautifully capture the pain and sorrow of Estelle Balfour. Degas Portrait of Estelle Musson Balfour c. 1865 differs from the portraits Degas had painted up until this point in both its composition and its textures. The painting is among a series of unconventional portraits that Degas completed around 1865 (McMullen pg.
These portraits violate nearly all the classical conventions that were set forth by Ingres and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Degas portrait of Estelle Musson Balfour is significant because it breaks with the classical convention that to be a successful portraitist one should accept one s models opinions of themselves. Degas portrait goes far beyond an idealized representation of his model. Although Degas gave the portrait to Estelle as a parting gift, it certainly had more meaning than just a simple portrait one was meant to hang in their parlor. The portrait of Estelle clearly reflects his concern with her situation and the unique position that all of the Musson women were in during the American Civil War.
Estelle represents to Degas the figure for the suffering that has been inflicted upon his own motherland. Degas paints Estelle s head against a background of barren trees. The barren wintry landscape represents both the devastated emotional state that Estelle was in and the devastated condition of her homeland. Her face is blurred and her eyes darkened and downcast. The viewer truly gets the impression that she is looking into the eyes of her dying husband. The piece beautifully portrays the sorrow and loneliness that Estelle must feel as a newly widowed mother in exile.
Degas portrait, Mme. Michel Musson and Her Two Daughters c. 1865, is also dominated by a sorrowful mood. The pencil and watercolor drawing, groups the three women around a mantelpiece.
Degas places these women in a particularity barren room, only the mantelpiece stands out among the bare walls. Still, the desolate room seems crowded with the figures of the women. The women are grouped tightly together, as if bonded together by their shared sorrow. Each of the Musson women looks at us with a heavyhearted expression, and each of the women is dressed in mourning attire.
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Their bodies sag, giving a bodily representation of their sorrow. The crumpled figure in the foreground is Estelle, and again we are presented with her melancholy gaze. The hands of her mother and sister reach out to her, as if to comfort her in her depressed state. The stark contrast of the upright figure of Desiree with the collapsed figure of Estelle gives us a sense of who we are meant to focus on.
Degas uses the darkest colors to paint her garb and places her in the center of the portrait reaffirming Estelle s importance. Her head is framed by the black emptiness of the fireplace strengthening the sense of absence, and elegy; it is the echoing space of her misery. (Benfey pg. 49) In this work Degas uses the bodies of his models, their facial expressions, and the space that surrounds them to create a touching representation of the Musson women s pain and suffering. The portraits that Degas completed during the Musson s visit to France signal his initial break with the neoclassical movement. During this period Degas painted a most extraordinary gallery of portraits of his intimates, of relations or friends he knew well, whose characters and inner life he could take his time to put on canvas.
Their features, expressions and attitudes are rendered with simplicity and precision, with no concessions, no remorse prompted by second thoughts, so to speak, and recorded with meticulous care. (McMullen pg. 135) By not concerning himself with flattering his models Degas was able to capture his models inner truth. Throughout his career, his ability to portray the true essence of his sitters was a salient characteristic of his portraiture.
However, Degas had not yet combined these qualities with a real attempt to depict the contemporary environment that surrounded him. Degas had established much of the style and realism that would typify his greatest works, but still the content of his work had not yet displayed his intuition for the contemporary, that would make his works truly stand out (Feilchenfeldt pg. 50).
After the defeat of the Confederacy, the time came for the Musson Ladies to return to New Orleans.
During the Musson s visit, Renee and Estelle had begun romance. Edgar s accompanied the ladies to New Orleans. Officially, he made the voyage in order to supervise some of the property that had been left to him by his mother. However, one cannot underestimate the effect Renee s love affair with Estelle had on his decision.
The Mussons welcomed their cousin into the family and Michel Musson employed him in his prosperous cotton firm. New Orleans was a strange choice for Renee considering the agitated state the city was in during the Reconstruction period. The city was slow to recover from the financial problems brought on by the Civil War, violence, lawlessness and corruption ran rampant in the city. A carpetbag government ruled the city and the social hierarchy that had once been dominated by the Creole aristocracy was beginning to crumble. After a few years in New Orleans working for Michel Musson, Renee decided he would attempt to start his own cotton firm. He returned to Paris to obtain funds for his upstart company.
After successfully securing a loan from his father s bank and finding a partner in his brother Achille, the two brothers began the voyage back to New Orleans. Tragedy awaited them in New Orleans. Renee returned to find that Estelle had been stricken with ophthalmia, and despite all kinds of treatment she was going blind. This tragedy, however, did not impede the young lovers.
The couple married on June 17, 1869, against the will of both families. They received a special Episcopal dispensation that allowed first cousins to marry. The newlyweds maintained their residence with the Mussons in the huge house at 372 Esplenade, one of the most elegant streets in New Orleans. The house was in a neighborhood that was almost entirely made up of Creoles. French was spoken as often as English was, and the de Gases were very active in the elaborate social scene of New Orleans. All of the Musson daughters lived in the Esplenade mansion, as did Achille.
The de Gas brothers cotton firm was successful in its first years and the de Gas family continued to expand. In April of 1870, Renee and Estelle de Gas had their first son, Pierre; followed in August of 1871 by a daughter (Mongan pg. 29).
In 1872, when Estelle was pregnant with her third child Renee sailed back to France. France was in a turbulent period of its own, having suffered through a terrible defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and having just gone through the bitter months of the Paris Commune. Renee, anxious to see how his family was doing, was dismayed to see Edgar depressed and distracted from his work.
Edgar had served as an infantryman in the National Guard during the War and complained that the powder from the cannons had begun to affect his eyes (Benfey pg. 76).
Regardless of whether or not his eye trouble was a result of his armed service, Degas eyes would trouble him for the rest of his life. Renee convinced Degas that a trip to New Orleans was just the distraction that he needed. The two brothers sailed in October of 1872 to New York via Liverpool.
The trip across the Atlantic took ten days and the brothers spent two days in New York. Degas considered New York a great town and great port, with charming spots that Monet or Pissaro could have painted beautifully. Always the portraitist, Degas felt that American faces shared much more in common with the French physiognomies than English. Degas correspondence reveals that he was very much impressed with the American style of travelling, particularly a train s sleeping car. You lie at night in a real bed; the carriage, which is as long as at least two in Europe, is transformed into a dormitory. You even place your boots at the foot of the bed and a nice Negro polishes them while you sleep (Mongan pg.
Degas correspondence reveals the excitement and curiosity that he brought into his experience of the New World. When analyzing the effect New Orleans had on Degas and his work, it is important to understand the mood of Degas when he entered New Orleans. The excitement and curiosity that was clearly evident in Degas correspondence reveal that he did not shut himself off from the New World as many art historians have claimed. As Edgar stepped off the train in New Orleans, he was blinded by the brilliant sunlight reflecting off the spectacles of his Uncle Michel.
This incident foreshadowed the trouble that Edgar s eyes would have with the intense brightness of the sun in New Orleans. Edgar had meant to surprise his American cousins, but there had been some talk of yellow fever still persisting at New Orleans so Renee had telegraphed to Achille asking if here would be any danger to a stranger, and the cat was out of the bag (Benfey pg. 80).
The entire Musson family awaited Edgar and Michel at the Pontchartrain Railroad Depot. As they made their way home in a horse drawn coach, Degas marveled at the Riverboats that lined the waterfront with their tall smokestacks- twin funnels as tall as factory smokestacks (Mauclair pg.
Edgar moved into the crowded mansion on Esplenade Avenue, reveling in the family life of his cousins. I am accumulating plans which would take ten life times to carry out. -Edgar Degas From his first days in New Orleans, Degas was all eyes, seeking out fresh material for his work.
Everything attracts me here, Degas wrote. I look at everything (Mauclair pg. 22).
The curiosity and excitement that is revealed in this quote shows a definite change Degas mood from the days just before his departure from Paris. In his correspondence, he reveals to one of his fellow painters, James Tissot, the impressive scenery of New Orleans.
I look at everything I like nothing better than the Negresses of every shade holding in their arms white, so very white, babies in front of white houses with wooden fluted columns and in gardens of orange trees and the ladies in muslin in front of their little houses and the steamboats with two chimneys as tall as factory chimneys and the fruit dealers with their crammed to bursting shops, and the contrast between the busy, well arranged office and this immense black animal force (McMullen pg. 234).
New Orleans during the 1870 s, as Degas observed it, was a city that had not yet adapted to the modernity of most American cities. Still in a frightening political, social and economic mess from the Civil War occupation, the city was bracing itself for the Reconstruction measures promised by the Federal government.
Many Confederate veterans returned to New Orleans with the idea of restoring the antebellum way of life. The power struggle between these men and the northern carpetbaggers divided the city. Yet Edgar s correspondence reveals none of this political and social dissension, even though his brothers and the Musson family were deeply involved in the struggle. The letters of Degas reveal that he lived in a sort of antebellum time capsule (Benfey pg.
The Musson s mansion was on Esplenade the avenue that marked the northern limits of the Vieux Carre. Degas rarely ventured out of the Vieux Carre, the French-Creole section of the city. The Vieux Carre was, a fine relic of the old, more civilized way of life, with rows of palms, elms, live oaks, and magnolias, some truly palatial homes built by Creole dynasties during their booms (McMullen pg. 233).
The greatest of all-American ports, New Orleans still had the flavor of its original founders.
Degas felt at home on the streets of the French Quarter and could speak his native tongue in nearly every area of the city. Degas, obviously enchanted by his new environment, planned ambitious projects that, as he said, would take ten lifetimes to carry out. Although Degas planned many ambitious projects, he did not follow many of the plans to the point of execution. The work Degas completed while in New Orleans does not reflect the curiosity and excitement that we see in his correspondence.
One of the theories behind his lack of production is the bright sunlight s affect on his eyes. Degas often complained that the intense sunlight along the banks of the Mississippi aggravated his eyesight. This suggests that he worked or intended to work outdoors. The aggravated condition of his eyes explains the lack of open-air paintings he did while in New Orleans.
However, the lack of this type of painting should not come as a complete surprise because Degas never really concentrated on this theme. Out of all of the Impressionist painters Degas s body of work contains the least amount of open-air paintings. Through Degas letters and his work done in New Orleans it is evident that he spent much of his time in the mansion on Esplenade, painting portraits of his American cousins. Degas complained in his letters about the difficulty of family portraits. Family portraits must be done to suit the taste of the family, in impossible lighting, with many interruptions, and with models who are very affectionate but a little too bold-they take you much less seriously because you are their nephew or cousin (Benfey pg. 91).
Degas displeasure with doing portraits of family members certainly did not affect the quality of his work. Each portrait of his three cousins: Desiree, Mathilde, and Estelle are among the masterpieces he completed while in New Orleans. Although the content of these portraits does not represent any significant artistic growth, this was a time of great style experimentation for Degas. Degas paints each of his three cousins in an inventive way that allows him to go beyond painting their individual features and allows him to create an image of a certain social type.
Degas portrait of Desiree Musson, titled Women with a Vase of Flowers c. 1872, experiments with a decentralized composition. Degas was very much influenced by Japanese prints, in which decentralization was a key theme. In many of his works dating as early as 1868 (The Orchestra of the Opera c. 1868), Degas uses them to gain new ideas about perspective and composition (McMullen pg. 178).
In Women with a Vase of Flowers c. 1872 we are able to see the effect Japanese prints had on Degas style. In this work, the composition s focus is split between the vase of flowers and Desiree. He divides the space of the painting using the shaded corner of the room. Desiree resides in the lighter half of the painting, while the flowers are against the background of the shadowed wall. Degas puts the flowers in the forefront of the picture, placing Desiree behind the flowers.
The vase takes up approximately as much space as Desiree and the green leaves invade her space, dangling across her breast and elbow. Degas lets the viewer debate whether the painting is a still life with the vase of flowers as its central focus or a portrait with Desiree as the central focus. This portrait reveals the experimentation that Degas was attempting in his portraiture. Degas style was expanding beyond the stiff techniques of the academic style of portraiture. Another significant aspect of this work is Degas expanded palette of colors. The range of colors that we see in this work is a dramatic change from the brown earthy tones that we previously saw in Degas portraits of his two brothers.
The painting is given a tropical resonance by the jade green wall, the purple blue vase, and the orange red flowers. The contrast of Desiree s pale skin against the jade green wall creates a beautiful contrast. The oranges, reds, blues, and greens that Degas uses in this painting show the expanded palette of colors that Degas introduces into his portraits during this period. Degas use of sunlight and shadow are also very effective in Desiree s portrait. The sunlight comes in from the left of the room and illuminates Desiree s white muslin dress and her left cheek. A little more than half of Desiree s face is clearly visible, the remaining portion is darkened by a shadow.
The two sides are contrasted by both the ways the light falls upon them and their expression. The side that the sun shines on is bright and smiling, while the other is shadowed and not smiling. The shaded face of Desiree acts as a visual metaphor for Degas prospective of the Creole s precarious existence in New Orleans. On the surface, in the sunlight, the Creoles of New Orleans still made up the social elite. But underneath, in the shadow of the visual splendor of the Creole s exquisite social balls and Mardi Gras, the foundations of the Creole aristocracy were crumbling.
The civil war and the Reconstruction policies that followed it had a tremendous effect on the Creole way of life. As a result of their Confederate service, nearly all Creole men were barred from participating in city and state government affairs. In their place came many northern businessmen, carpetbaggers, eager for an opportunity to control the valuable port city. These men did not care to maintain any of the Creole traditions, and for the most part only cared for the personal profits they could make off the city.
Many Creole men fought for the old way of life, among these men were Degas brothers. Renee De Gas was chairman of the White League and helped organize an armed protest in 1877 (Benfey pg. 189).
The protest would eventually lead to the Compromise of 1874, the restoration of home rule in Louisiana. During Degas visit he was able to experience first hand the conflicts that were dividing the city and his Creole family. Degas incorporates his experience and knowledge of the complex Degas portrait of his second cousin, Mathilde Bell titled Woman Seated near a Balcony c.
1872, is set on the balcony of the Musson mansion on Esplenade. Again, Degas positions his subject slightly off the center of the painting. By placing her in this position, Degas provides us with a larger area to view the balcony that is behind her. Degas does this to stress the significance of the setting. The balconies in New Orleans had a special function in the lives of the city s women. Most of the Creole women of New Orleans would not venture out of their homes without the accompaniment of a chaperone or husband.
Thus, these balconies provided the women with an easily accessible place to sit and watch the hustle and bustle of the streets below. These intimate, half-private spaces, neither entirely inside nor outside provided a place to view passing parades, socialize with friends, and cool off during steamy days. Edward King, a journalist who visited the city in 1873, admired the daughters of Creoles on the balconies, gaily chatting while the veil of twilight is torn away, and the glory of the southern moonlight is showered over the quiet streets (Benfey pg. 93).
Everything from the setting that Degas paints Mathilde Bell in to the way she dresses typifies the aristocratic Creole woman. Her dress with its low slung bodice and waist decorated with orange ribbons was at the height of Creole fashion.
The black choker she wears starkly contrasts Mathilde s pale skin. The paleness of her skin was a result of the extremely sheltered lives Creole women led. Creole women always wore veils outdoors, to insure that their skin remained milky white, thus they would never be mistaken for a person of mixed race. In Woman Seated near a Balcony, Degas captures more than just the physical characteristics of his cousin. The painting captures a contemporary class, the Creole women of New Orleans. In this work, Degas progression to blending his realist style with contemporary themes is evident.
From the first days of her visit to France years earlier, Estelle de Gas fascinated Edgar. Degas had comforted her when she had lost her husband years before and now as ophthalmia had taken her sight, he related to her on an even deeper level. Degas had become increasingly worried about the condition of his eyes and in Estelle he found someone who could relate to his fears. Degas mentioned Estelle in almost every letter, concentrating on her blindness.
She bears her blindness in an incomparable manner, he noted; she needs scarcely any help about the house. She remembers the rooms and the position of the furniture and hardly ever bumps into anything. And there is no hope! (Benfey pg. 96) The portrait of Estelle, Mme. Renee De Gas c. 1872, certainly reflects Degas special concern for her.
In his depiction of her, we can see some of the anxiety that Degas has about his own eyes. Degas places Estelle to one side of the painting, awkwardly sitting on a chaise long, and surrounded by an eerie reddish background with no props or furniture. Her off center position and her blank surroundings duplicate for the viewer the disorientation a blind person must feel. Degas use of muted colors and light tones also create a sense that she is surrounded by a void. Degas mimics the French painting tradition of a woman seductively reclining on a sofa.
Instead of having Estelle seductively lying on it, as Ingres has his model in Grande Odalisque c. 1814, he has her anxiously sitting on the edge of the couch. As she gazes off into nowhere, her expression is expectant. She seems unaware of what is about to happen. One senses that Degas uses Estelle as the physical representation of his anxiety about his own condition. When looking at the portraits that Degas completed while in New Orleans, one could make the argument that Degas spent his visit holed up in the Musson Mansion impervious to all the external sensations the city had to offer.
But, that would be only examining the issue on a surface level. It is true Degas did not paint the exotic scenery he talks about in his letters. His eye problems, no doubt real, gave him a ready excuse to avoid plein air painting. He often suggests that his impressionist colleagues Manet or Delacroix could have captured the exotic city far better. However, by concentrating on things he had an intimate knowledge of, he was able to paint a deeper portrait of the troubled society he found in New Orleans.
Degas portraits of his American cousins capture people that Degas had a deep knowledge and understanding of. By capturing these women, Degas managed to capture the essence of the class they belonged to. These portraits reveal more about the complicated society of New Orleans than images of the exotic surface of the city ever could. The progression of Degas portraiture is strikingly illustrated in one of his greatest masterpieces, Absinthe c. 1876. Painted shortly after his return to Paris, Absinthe symbolizes the culmination of the stylistic advances that Degas made while in New Orleans.
Degas portraits of his Creole cousins served as rehearsals, that could be kept within the family, for masterpieces that would be painted upon his return to Paris. In the works painted after New Orleans, Degas focuses on themes that for him define Paris. These themes include caf scenes, Parisian laundresses and ballet rehearsals. Absinthe is set in the Caf de la Nouvelle Athens, a hang out for Degas and many of his Impressionist cohorts.
Degas places his model, an attractive stage celebrity, at one end of a long marble table behind a glass of Absinthe (Feilchenfeldt pg. 49).
Degas depicts her as a weary prostitute who has come in off the street for a drink and a few minutes rest. She stares blankly into space, lost in a brief moment of rest. Her body, shoulders hunched forward, has the same weary expression as her face. Degas isolates her by having the person seated next to her, who looks as if he is a lush, turned in the opposite direction.
By doing this, Degas really emphasizes her degradation. Degas goes beyond her individual features by emphasizing her particular attitude, reflected in her expression, her body language and her setting. He emphasizes this attitude to such a degree as to create an image of a certain Parisian type rather than a portrait of a young woman. Just as in the portraits of his Creole cousins, Degas uses everything contained within the frame to record a social type. Works such as are fine representations of the realism of Degas.
One does nothing here, it lies in the climate, nothing but cotton, one lives for cotton and from cotton. -Degas in a letter to Henri RouartAfter two months in New Orleans, Degas longed for something to break the monotony of painting family portraits in the Esplenade mansion. His frustrations with his models and the lighting in New Orleans are reflected in his correspondence with Tissot, After having wasted time in the family trying to do portraits in the worst conditions I have ever found or imagined, I have attached myself to a fairly vigorous picture (Benfey pg. 155).
The vigorous picture that Degas speaks of is the one that is most commonly linked with his trip to New Orleans, A Cotton Office in New Orleans 1872. Essentially, it is another family portrait and just as in the works we have discussed early Degas picks the setting that best suits his models.
Both the men of the De Gas and Musson family were heavily involved in the cotton trade. Degas everyday routine included a trip to his brothers office to pick up his mail and to read the newspaper. He had listened for months to his brothers speculatively talk about the prices of cotton and he had often remarked in his letters of how dull he found their incessant chatter. He wrote in one of his letters, One has to be in the everlasting cotton trade otherwise beware (Benfey pg. 152).
It was during one of his daily visits to the office that the routine he once considered dull became a subject that aroused his intuition for the contemporary.
The cotton office was a fresh slice of modern life; a contemporary scene that perfectly reflected life in New Orleans during the 1870 s. In A Cotton Office in New Orleans c. 1873, we are in the commercial Faubourg Sainte Marie quarter, looking in to the office of Michel Musson. Sunlight fills the crowded office, as men hurry about analyzing and processing the latest cotton samples. In this passage, taken from a letter to Tissot, Degas provides us a brief description of the painting: In it there are about 15 individuals more or less occupied with a table covered with the precious material and two men, one half leaning and the other half sitting on it, the buyer and the broker, are discussing the sample (Benfey pg. 155).
Degas does not mention to Tissot that nearly all of the individuals pictured in the piece are his relatives. In the immediate foreground is the patriarch of Degas New Orleans family, Michel Musson. Michel peers over his glasses, casually testing the quality of a cotton sample. Behind him, Renee smokes a cigarette while reading the local Picayune. To the far left of Renee, Achille leans cross-legged against a windowsill. Apparently, either things were not too busy at the De Gas office or the brothers came to the office to pose for their eldest brother.
Nearly all of the other models in the office are cousins or are of some relation to Degas. The style of the painting is reminiscent of Degas great portraits of the 1860 s. Degas reverts back to the simple and bold qualities of the French Naturalist movement (McMullen pg. 239).
The style of the painting very much resembles his portrait of the Bellini family.
The faces of the models in this work have a much more photographic quality than the faces of his female cousins in his other New Orleans portraits. He spares no detail in each individual portrait. At first glance, the painting has the cold look of a snapshot, but on a closer investigation the less photographic it appears. Degas masterfully uses the space and the architectural details of the office to frame the scene. Using a camera like angle, he allows for us to see everything in the office with the utmost clarity.
The men and objects in the back of the room recede with a photographic lack of constancy scaling Life 239. He goes to the extent of letting the viewer see through the open windows of the office into the adjoining office. Degas was insistent on depicting people in their usual settings and he successfully does this in this work. His strong draftsmanship is reflected in his ability to record the complicated mesh of architectural detail without making the layout seem cluttered. With its carefully choreographed interaction among its figures, A Cotton Office in New Orleans looks forward to Degas ballet paintings. The painting s spatial layout foreshadows the superb draftsmanship we would see in some of the first ballet rehearsal paintings.
In The Rehearsal of the Ballet on the Stage c. 1874, Degas uses a similar angle to show us the action. We are slightly above the scene looking down on the action. Again, Degas uses the photographic lack of constancy scaling to effectively show the dancers in the background. The seemingly random positions of the characters throughout the office remind us of look forward to the chaotic ballet rehearsals Degas would go on to paint. The figures in the office are grouped in configurations that very much resemble the positions Degas would later show his ballet students in.
Although the draftsmanship of A Cotton Office in New Orleans looks forward to Degas ballet paintings, the naturalist style it was in was a throwback to his earlier works. The work that best reflects the stylistic progression of Degas is Cotton Merchants in New Orleans c. 1873. Degas describes this work in his correspondence, less complicated and more spontaneous, of a better art, where people are in summer dress, white walls, a sea of cotton on the tables (Benfey pg. 157).
The fact that Degas refers to this as better art reveals to us he believed his art was progressing.
The painting totally departs from the naturalistic style Degas uses in A Cotton Office. Degas style is much more impressionistic in this work; he is much more suggestive, every detail is not revealed. Degas quick handling of gesture and light in this light airy composition looks forward to the stylistic mode that Degas would follow for the following years. Works such as At the Caf Concert: The Song of the Dog 1875, Women Ironing 1884, and Dancers, Pink and Green c. 1890 reflect this stylistic progression. Everything is beautiful in this world of the people.
But one Paris laundry girl, with bare arms, is worth it all for such a pronounced Parisian as I am. -Degas in a letter to FrolichDuring his last months in New Orleans Degas often complained in his correspondence about being homesick for Paris. No longer enchanted with his exotic surroundings, he longed to return to his native home. In his last letters from New Orleans, Degas seems rather determined that his lack of native knowledge prevented him from really capturing the essence of New Orleans. I no longer want to see anything except my own corner. I want to dig in it piously.
You don t expand art; you sum it up. Unable to expand his art to encompass the exotiscm of New Orleans, Degas was anxious to return home and attempt to capture his native city, to sum it up as he explains. His desire to return to his own corner reflects the frustration he obviously felt during his time in New Orleans. Out of all of this Impressionist colleagues, Degas felt he was the least suited to record the exotic flavor of New Orleans. Manet, more than me, would have seen beautiful things here. But he wouldn t have made anything more out of them.
In art you love and you produce only what you are used to (McMullen pg. 236).
By confining his work to things he had an intimate knowledge of, Degas limited himself almost exclusively to family portraits. One should not underestimate how his frustration affected his work, when Degas returned to Paris he was determined to concentrate on themes that were native to him, Parisian themes. In mid March of 1873, Degas departed New Orleans. Curiously, he brought all of his New Orleans works with him, not offering any to his models.
Even though Degas was frustrated by his lack of output in New Orleans, he left with a positive attitude. More importantly Degas brought with him a new resolve about his work, his career, and his future. I have made certain good resolutions which I honestly feel capable of carrying out. If I could have another 20 years time to work I would do things that would endure.
-Degas in a letter to Tissot Edgar Degas four-month sojourn in New Orleans was a critical moment in his career. A moment of experimentation and self-examination, he desperately needed in order to realize his future promise. His artistic progression can be seen in the changes that occurred in both the style and the content of his work. Through his experimentation with portraiture, Degas began not to concentrate as much on the faithful representation of his individual models, but began to perceive and to render some of the typical characteristics of the social, professional and human types that surrounded him. His ability to capture the essence of these types is at the heart of his realism. Through his portraits of his Creole cousins, we can see how Degas began to use his models surroundings, expressions, body language, and position within the picture to express something greater than just a physical representation.
The painting style of Degas also experienced a profound change during his visit to New Orleans. Cotton Merchants in New Orleans shows a definite change from the simple lines of naturalism that is present in many of his previous works to a more loosely handed style of painting. The light airy composition foreshadowed the style of painting that Degas would use for the following years. Most of all, New Orleans was a time of self-examination for Degas. Degas returned to Paris with the resolution to paint things that he loved and knew.
Through his correspondence, Degas reveals to us that although he was mesmerized by the exotic qualities of New Orleans, his lack of a deep knowledge of his surroundings prevented him from really capturing the city. Instead, Degas focused on portraits of his intimates, and through these portraits we are presented with an insightful examination of the Creole social class. It was not Degas ambition to present his viewers with slick images of exoticism, for instantaneous impressions are merely photographic.