When Degas painted New Orleans
In 1872, Edgar Degas, a 38-year-old French artist who was not widely known in his native land, arrived for an extended visit with his kin in their home at 2306 Esplanade Ave. Degas, whose mother was a New Orleanian, kept busy during his five-month stay: He started 17 paintings, including “Portrait of Estelle Musson DeGas,” an image of his cousin arranging flowers, which today hangs in the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Degas, who died in 1917, is best known for his depictions of jockeys, prostitutes and ballet dancers. He has become recognized as a master of the impressionist style, and his paintings and sculptures are worth millions. The New Orleans house where he stayed is now a bed and breakfast, and Café Degas, a popular restaurant, is on Esplanade Avenue between the house and the art museum.
- Degas had no shortage of names to choose from. He was born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas; “de Gas,” according to Biography.com, was a longtime aristocratic pretention implying land the family didn’t own. As an adult, he chose Edgar and reverted to “Degas” for his surname.
- The New Orleans house where Degas stayed was big enough to accommodate 18 family members, but when the family later fell on hard times, the land around the house was subdivided into six lots, and the house was cut in two and divided into apartments. Those buildings still stand side by side on Esplanade Avenue.
During Degas’ time in New Orleans, his brother René de Gas carried on an affair with a neighbor while married to Estelle Musson, who was also his cousin.
- The light in Degas’ mother’s hometown was so bright that it hurt his weak eyes, forcing him to work indoors. Estelle Musson, incidentally, was going blind.
- Degas depicted some of his male relatives in his famous painting “A Cotton Office in New Orleans.” Some were involved in the plotting that led to what has become known as the Battle of Liberty Place, the White League’s Sept. 14,1874, attack on policemen in an attempt to end Reconstruction and drive out carpetbaggers and black officeholders.
Degas has attained artistic immortality, and his time in New Orleans has given him a special regard among the city’s residents. A 1999 exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art, “Degas and New Orleans: A French Impressionist in New Orleans,” drew 192,000 visitors – no small feat because it was on view during the summer, a traditionally slow season. Degas’ time in New Orleans inspired a play, “Degas” by Rosary O’Neill; Degas Day festivals; and a cocktail, Estelle’s Revenge, which was served at the Degas House during the 1999 museum exhibit. Perhaps the greatest expression of civic love for the artist came in 1965, when local citizens contributed $190,000 (the equivalent of $1.47 million in 2017) to buy “Portrait of Estelle Musson DeGas” for the New Orleans Museum of Art