Degas in New Orleans, sans the ballerinas

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Edgar Degas is famous for his paintings of Parisian ballet dancers, weary French laundresses, and equestrian motifs.

But there is another, less familiar side to the French Impressionist that took shape thousands of miles away from his native Paris in a city known for its seedy secrets and legends whispered behind closed doors.

In 1872, the up-and-coming artist journeyed to New Orleans, the birthplace of his mother.

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When Degas set foot in the city, he was greeted by his mother's family, the Mussons, as well as a bewildering sprawl of dazzling light, furious heat, and a throng of bodies - as many black as white. For Degas, New Orleans was unusually exotic.

He did not venture to capture these images on canvas, however. "I am not the one to illustrate the city," he noted. Instead, he nestled inside his wealthy uncle's French Quarter mansion, sketching and painting his American relatives.

Yet his stay in New Orleans made for a handful of marvelous paintings - works far ahead of their time in psychological content and formal composition. They are now on display at a remarkable new exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

"Degas and New Orleans: A French Impressionist in America" features 40 works by Degas, including 17 painted in the Crescent City, as well as related family letters, furniture, jewelry, photographs, and other historic materials. The exhibition runs through Aug. 29, and then travels to Copenhagen, Denmark, its only other venue.

Degas, who often referred to himself as an "almost son of Louisiana," was the only French Impressionist to sojourn in the New World - a fact that takes many by surprise. He stayed from October 1872 until March 1873.

"The paintings Degas did in New Orleans show very personal, psychological family themes," says Gail Feigenbaum, the museum's curator of painting. "Degas's art would have looked vastly different if he had not come to New Orleans."

When he arrived on the banks of the Mississippi, Degas was in the formative stages of his career. Most scholars say they believe Degas's stay in New Orleans cemented his lifelong focus on a narrow range of subjects. While in New Orleans, he painted portraits - often the same scene over and over with only small variations.

While he may have been fascinated with the residue of colonial gentility and the mixing of races and cultures, Degas instead stayed indoors and painted mesmerizing - as well as sometimes morose and somber - portraits.

Comically enough, Degas observed, "You have to paint them to the taste of the family, in impossible light, with many interruptions, with models who are affectionate but a bit free and easy with you and take you much less seriously because you are their nephew or their cousin."

The merit of "Degas and New Orleans" lies in the penetrating pictures it assembles, images that gain impact by being shown together. The exhibition is small enough that each work can be savored. A handful of Degas's pictures look ahead not only to Impressionism, but to the Post-Impressionism of Paul Czanne and the Cubist-inspired works of Henri Matisse.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is "A Cotton Office in New Orleans." It depicts a scene in which his uncle, two brothers, and cousins posed as dark-suited cotton brokers. It eventually became the first 19th-century Impressionist painting to be purchased by a French museum.

"This exhibit is noteworthy because no other French Impressionist was influenced by the New World," Ms. Feigenbaum says. "Besides, this is perhaps the only time Degas's New Orleans works will be shown together."

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