Lost & Found

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The Musson House circa 1860. Watercolor by Adrien Persac.

At first glance, the 1854 house flying the French flag at 2306 Esplanade Avenue is unremarkable in a town teeming with antebellum homes trimmed with cast-iron galleries, but its story is far richer than most. Events within these walls rocked the international art world after a visit from Edgar Degas, the only nineteenth-century French Impressionist to ever work in America.

“He drowsed in the vibrant sunlight until the carriage halted before the Musson home. Through bleary eyes, he admired a handsome, three-storied house with generous galleries and dependencies and, here and there, cousin Désirée’s promised sweet olive trees.” –Creole Son

Degas (1834-1917) was born in Paris to a French father, Auguste Degas, and a New Orleans-born mother, Célestine Musson. In 1872, with his personal and professional life in shreds, Degas visited his Creole family in search of rejuvenation. Living in the Esplanade house were his Uncle Michel Musson and Musson’s three daughters, Désirée, Mathilde and Estelle who was married to Degas’s brother, René. The extended family eagerly welcomed their famous Paris relative and set aside a room for his use as a studio. Degas was enchanted by New Orleans and worked feverishly, producing over a dozen canvases and numerous sketches, mostly of his family. One painting, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, featuring his uncle and brothers, René and Achille, became his first work purchased by a museum. The only downside was the subtropical Louisiana sunlight which hurt his sensitive eyes and forced him to work indoors.

“What lovely things I could have done, and done rapidly if the bright daylight were less unbearable for me. To go to Louisiana to open one’s eyes, I cannot do that. And yet I kept them sufficiently half open to see my fill.”—Edgar Degas, Letter from New Orleans

Following Degas’ return to Paris, René’s infidelities caused an irreparable family breach driving him back to France, and the Mussons moved to another home. In a bizarre instance of art imitating life, the Esplanade house was split in the 1920s with one third of the structure moved twenty feet away. Because Michel Musson had leased the house and rental records were seldom kept, by the mid-twentieth-century, art historians were uncertain where Degas had stayed. Efforts to identify the site from the Persac painting failed because the house had not only been physically cut apart but embellished with Italianate features in the 1880s. Miraculously, someone strolling Esplanade noticed that the second floor gallery had grillwork matching that in Degas’s painting of his cousin Mathilde. Today both houses are restored and operate as a bed-and-breakfast.

The two "Degas Houses" today. The original building is on the right.

The two “Degas Houses” today. The original building is on the right.

In addition to being the artist’s only residence open to the public, this is where Degas switched from the neoclassical style dominating European painting to the daring new Impressionistic mode. Why he made this tectonic stylistic change, which would make him one of the most famous painters of his time, is the subject of Creole Son. Here’s what literary critic Celeste Berteau of the Louisiana newspaper, The Advocate, wrote about the book August 28, 2016.

Author’s Degas story paints picture of post-Civil War New Orleans

When the great French painter Edgar Degas traveled to America in the autumn of 1872 he expected a peaceful visit with his New Orleans relatives and new inspiration for his art. He found much more. Little did Degas realize, post-Civil War New Orleans was a city that continued to struggle under the throes of Reconstruction, a city that was policed by unfriendly Union troops and governed by corrupt and violent politicians.

In Creole Son, novelist Michael Llewellyn paints a vivid picture with words of life in New Orleans at that time, while chronicling the known details of the artist’s sojourn in the city. Many readers know that Degas’ mother, Célestine Musson, was a native of New Orleans, and it was in the Esplanade Avenue home of her brother, Michel Musson, where the artist resided during his visit of several months. Also living in the home was Edgar’s brother René and his bride Estelle, who was also cousin to the brothers, as she was a daughter of Michel and his late wife Odile. The reader is privy to the domestic activities of the artist’s Creole family’s household, particularly those of Estelle, whom he lovingly renders in his artwork. One notable painting of Estelle, “A Portrait of Madame René De Gas,” now hangs in the New Orleans Museum of Art. That Degas had deep affection for his cousin Estelle is well known, and Llewellyn’s depiction of their relationship feels sincere.

The author also takes us to Michel Musson’s cotton brokerage in downtown New Orleans, the subject of one of Degas’ most well-known and important paintings, “A Cotton Office in New Orleans.” It is apparent that Llewellyn has knowledge of both art history and technique, and as we read we share in the artist’s process of creating this great work. Readers from south Louisiana may recognize references to other locations visited by Degas in the novel, such as the Millaudon plantation in St. Bernard Parish, and the Luling Mansion in New Orleans, the impressive Italianate structure off Esplanade Avenue that was home to the Jockey Club in Degas’ day.

Llewellyn has clearly done his research. The author gives us a sweeping portrait of one of the most beloved 19th-century artists and his immersion in the culture of his mother’s beloved city. We are exposed to Degas’ despair stemming from the violence he had witnessed in Paris when the city was under the 1870-1 Prussian siege and the bloody months of the Paris Commune, and we feel his discomfort as he is exposed to the bigotry in New Orleans, which ultimately led to the formation of the White League and the Battle of Liberty Place.

Degas was in New Orleans over the Carnival season and the pageantry and society of Mardi Gras is explored, as is the caste system within the black community during this era. The artist learns about this, and more, from a beautiful octoroon named Cybéle who he engages as a model. Their relationship eventually blossoms into a romantic one, and this aspect of the story lends a perfect balance to the other storylines.

Llewellyn has a gift for dialogue and, while believable in the context of the novel, much of what the characters say could be spoken today by anyone intimate with New Orleans. “There’s something very strange about this place, this wild mixture of land and water that warns and inspires with its very impermanence,” a fellow artist tells Degas as they observe the Mississippi River. Llewellyn’s deft handling of historical detail entwined with an engrossing fictional narrative will appeal to lovers of history, lovers of art, and lovers of a good read. Creole Son succeeds in delivering what historical fiction should deliver. It engages, it educates, and above all, it entertains.

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  1. Ciji Ware
    Sep 7, 2016

    Ms. Berteau’s review perfectly captures why CREOLE SON is such an important work of historical fiction: revealing New Orleans life under Reconstruction that few Americans–and even residents of greater Louisiana–know, and with verve and flair! The story of the Musson House, alone, is worth the price of admission, but to then to learn the story of Degas time in the Crescent City–well, what a treat!

  2. Greg Lindeblom
    Sep 7, 2016

    I thoroughly enjoyed Creole Son. The story is richly layered, with historical fact and fictional embellishment expertly woven together.

  3. Liz
    Sep 9, 2016

    Michael, I really do love that cover. And thanks for sharing that excellent review! Well deserved! I learned so much from CREOLE SON, even as I fell under the spell of Cybele…

  4. Scott
    Sep 11, 2016

    This is the first book I’ve read about a slice in the life of a great artist, based on historical facts. While reading, I researched and viewed many of the mentioned paintings, as well as many more. It was a period of history I knew little about. Thank you for filling in the details! I always figured that great artists have a little sliver of irreverence that they include in all their works. Like scientists, they are never satisfied with old world thinking, and tend to see things in new and different ways that are unappreciated in their own time.

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