Degas and New Orleans

Gail Feigenbaum, the museum’s curator of painting, says there is no way to be sure if Degas’s art “would have looked the same if he had not come here,” but she is convinced that “the visual experience of New Orleans transferred to his aesthetics.” Some critics have suggested that the colors of New Orleans had a lasting impact on Degas, and the city’s influence has been found in works he completed years after he returned to France. As the 20th century nears its end, New Orleans is prepared to embrace Degas again. Officials are expecting a jam of monstrous proportions when “Degas and New Orleans: A French Impressionist in America” opens May 1.

That coincides with the final weekend of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, an event that annually draws tens of thousands to the Crescent City. The exhibit will run through Aug. 29, providing an attraction during summer months, when tourism ebbs. The centerpiece of the exhibit will be Degas’s famous canvas “A Cotton Office in New Orleans,” a scene in which his uncle, two brothers, and various cousins served as models for dark-suited cotton brokers. It became the first 19th-century Impressionist painting to be purchased by a French museum, and the work will be on loan from the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Pau, France. Before landing the cotton office painting, New Orleans had to compete with Atlanta, which is currently hosting a major exhibit of French Impressionists. “We felt we had to get it,” Feigenbaum says. “It was an important work for us to get.”

During the last month, couriers have been bringing other priceless Degas works from France, Denmark, the Netherlands, the Bahamas, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts sent three works, and Harvard University’s Fogg Museum sent a companion piece to the cotton office tableau. One work that will return to the public eye is “The Nurse (La Garde-Malade),” a gouache that depicts a sickroom vigil. It has been locked in a private vault and unseen for nearly 40 years. In addition, relatives of the artist have contributed other artifacts. New Orleans was the home of his mother, Celestine Musson Degas, and a number of descendants of the Musson family still live here. Feigenbaum had only a year to assemble the collection after the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism asked for a special event tied to the Louisiana-France celebration. Generally, four years are needed to develop this kind of project. “We envisioned maybe only a dozen works, something really intimate,” she says. But museums and private collectors responded quickly and generously because New Orleans represented a special place for Degas. When the artist joined his two brothers here, the city was still under occupation by Federal troops following the Civil War.

Though Reconstruction and pestilence gnawed at the city’s joie de vivre, Degas experienced exotica in New Orleans that made Paris seem almost mundane. Against a backdrop of a massive river, the Mississippi, and rich foliage, Degas was introduced to a world of Southern customs, racial passions, and pagan revelry. He discovered “free men of color” — Creoles with African blood — among his New Orleans cousins, even as other relatives, future members of the notorious White League, plotted a violent insurrection against the Yankee forces. There were duels under the oaks of City Park, and dysfunction ruled Degas’s American family. His brother Rene married a first cousin, then abandoned her to elope with another New Orleans siren. It was the stuff of 19th-century soap opera. In his 1997 book, “Degas in New Orleans,” Christopher Benfey wrote: “The journey to New Orleans marked a key moment in Degas’s career. . . . Distracted and stalled in his profession on his arrival, he left the city with a new sense of direction and resolve. He also took with him, in his portfolio and his mind, several unforgettable images of New Orleans life.” His uncle’s home, where Degas stayed, still stands on Esplanade, a boulevard that connects the French Quarter and City Park. The house is within walking distance of the city’s venerable thoroughbred track, the Fairgrounds. Racehorses were a favorite theme for Degas. “We can only assume he went to the Fairgrounds,” Feigenbaum says. “We have tried, but we can’t link his racing pictures to New Orleans.”

Yet the city was clearly the source for another of the artist’s obsessions. Degas was fascinated by his first cousin, Estelle, the young widow of a Confederate soldier. “One cannot look at her without thinking that in front of that head there are the eyes of a dying man,” Degas once wrote. Later, as she grew blind, Estelle became the scorned bride of Degas’s brother. Her sorrowful face is depicted in several works, including a portrait in the permanent collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art that local citizens brought home through a public subscription drive 30 years ago. Degas sailed back to France following Mardi Gras in 1873 and never returned. But he retained sketches and memories of New Orleans. Years later, when his contemporary Paul Gauguin considered the South Seas as a setting for his art, Degas recommended New Orleans instead. Of course, the South Sea Islands were strange, Degas said, but New Orleans stood out as one of the most exotic places on earth.