Lasting Impressions

The über hot ticket in Washington, D.C. this summer is the Edgar Degas/Mary Cassatt exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. One surprising revelation is that both artists loathed being labeled “Impressionists” (they preferred “independents”), but no mention is made of the abruptness with which Degas threw himself into this radical style or that his decision was made thousands of miles from his native France.

Memories of his beautiful Creole mother Celestine lured Degas to unexpected destiny in to New Orleans

Memories of his beautiful Creole mother Celestine lured Degas to unexpected destiny in to New Orleans

Degas’s mother, Celestine Musson, was a Louisiana Creole who died when he was thirteen, and in 1872, at age 38, he visited her brother Michel and his daughters, Estelle, Mathilde and Désirée in New Orleans. Seduced by the exotic city, he wrote glowing letters home about his enchantment. “Everything attracts me here…the white houses with columns of fluted wood and gardens with orange trees and the ladies in muslin, and steamboats with chimneys as tall as factory chimneys.” Degas soon reached for his paintbrushes, but because the bright subtropical light hurt his eyes, he worked indoors using his family as models. Needing money and hoping to rejuvenate a flagging career back home, he then created his first strictly commercial canvas by painting his Uncle Michel at work, turning it into a family portrait by including brothers René and Achille and brother-in-law William Bell. The result was A Cotton Office in New Orleans. Executed in neo-classical style, it was so finely rendered that the viewer could read the date of the newspaper in Michel Musson’s hands.

Degas's first painting of his uncle's cotton offices was executed in pure neo-classic style.

Degas’s first painting of his uncle’s cotton offices was executed in pure neo-classic style.

The paint was not dry when Degas began work on a second version of the same subject, but instead of sharp, clear detailing, he only suggested images and textures. The cotton bolls on the work table were now a blur, albeit a controlled one, and the men’s features were intentionally vague. By depicting only an impression –the operative word here–of what he saw, Degas boldly embraced a radical art movement gathering steam back in France. He was so enthusiastic that he wrote a fellow artist in Paris about this daring work, calling it “less complicated and more spontaneous, better art.” It’s obvious that this second painting, Cotton Merchants in New Orleans, is pure Impressionism. The leap had been made.

Degas's second painting of the cotton offices was a radical departure from the first. This was Impressionism at its purest.

Degas’s second painting of the cotton offices was a radical departure from the first. This was Impressionism at its purest.

Because Degas’s visual shift was so dramatic, I wondered if it was driven by something more than money and career stagnation. How did New Orleans strike a nerve so deep that he became an artist reborn? If the switch to Impression was an inchoate seed, why did Louisiana make it flower? In search of answers, I dug into the social and political climate during Degas’s visit, read newspapers from the time and letters detailing his reaction to life in Reconstruction-era New Orleans. More details emerged when I examined his family dynamic. I was immediately moved by his closeness to his first cousin Estelle who was married to his brother, René. Estelle was blind, and with Degas’s eyesight already failing, he no doubt felt a special bond. Estelle quickly became his favorite model and was the subject of more paintings than any other family member. Still, I wondered if there were other forces influencing Degas.

Degas’s blind cousin Estelle was a dear friend and his favorite family model in New Orleans.

Armed with all this information, I was inspired to write Creole Son, delineating what I intuited was behind Degas’s stylistic switch. The title was inspired by the master painter himself who wrote that, “Louisiana must be respected by all her children, and I am almost one of them.” I hope he would find my delineation of his metamorphosis respectful as well.

Creole Son

Degas’s portrait of his cousin Mathilde provided the perfect cover. She is seated on the gallery of the house where the painter stayed during his 1872-3 sojourn in New Orleans.

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Bebe
    Jun 12, 2014

    Edgar Degas would love your book! I am more than half way through and I am captivated. Your research is remarkable and you tell the story so beautifully. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing it.

  2. Liz
    Jun 12, 2014

    Well, dear Michael, you know how much I love your book and it is always a pleasure to hear/read about your research and your approach to your material. How I wish we could grab two of those hot tickets and go see the Degas/Cassatt show at the National Gallery, reprising our enjoyment when we strolled through the Norton Simon together.

    Thanks for this terrific piece!

  3. Karen
    Jun 12, 2014

    I too wish I could grab one of those hot tickets to the exhibit with you and Liz! Love your comments, as always.

  4. Scott
    Jun 16, 2014

    As you might imagine, seeing the words, “painting his Uncle Michel at work,” set off all manner of bells and whistles. Reminded me of old film photography days, especially when I visited NOLA about 15 years ago. Has it been that long? Your blog is turning into quite a cornucopia of historical tidbits which are always fascinating. I certainly hope you continue to share for many years to come! Would love to see an elegant painting of you writing, do you paint water color selfies?

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