Edgar Hilaire-Germain Degas was an Impressionist and is best known for his paintings of dancing ballerinas, race horses and nude female figures. His paintings consisted of visible brush strokes, open composition with simple subjects using unusual angles and an emphasis on light, which are characteristics of Impressionist. Degas was the first Impressionist to ever visit America during the 1870's. Although Degas was born in Paris, France his mother was from a prominent New Orleans Creole family and told stories about her home. Degas was intrigued by those stories and wanted to visit the city and his family. While planning his trip to New Orleans, Degas discovered he had not decided on subjects and styles that would take him throughout his career and needed a new sense of direction. In 1872 to 1873 Edgar Degas spent five months in New Orleans and discovered the experience would reinvent him as a painter (Benfey).
Degas arrived in New Orleans needing fresh ideas and feel in love with the city and the people. Prior to his arrival, Degas was feeling depressed and lost interest in his art. He was hoping his trip to New Orleans would give him inspiration. It was during his stay that he began painting portraits of his family and friends. It was also during his time in New Orleans that Degas discovered the colors of the city to be an influence for his paintings, not only while visiting the city but for works to come. It was while he was in New Orleans he began his studies of women bathing, working and in cafes (degashouse).
Degas did not accept commissions for portraits but painted mostly friends and family. This gave him the chance to be freer with his work. Degas had three female cousins who regularly modeled for him and are found in three of his paintings, Woman with a Vase of Flowers, Mme. Ren De Gas and Woman Seated near a Balcony. These three portraits are subtle and impressive with different shades and settings. Although Degas was frustrated with the lighting which was impossible, the many interruptions and the models not taking his work as seriously as he did, he was able to capture in the portraits an outstanding record of how New Orleans looked at that time (Benfey).
Degas spent his mornings in his family's cotton office. He would read the newspaper, answer mail and keep up with the latest news. On one of these visits to the cotton office Degas realized that his surroundings made a great subject of modern life. His excitement over finding a subject led him to become eager about his art again (Benfey). From this excitement he painted "The New Orleans Cotton Exchange" (degashouse). The painting is of well dress men in formal attire leaning over tables covered in cotton. Degas called the painting naturalism or ultra realism because the people are shown in the natural settings. His use of architectural detail consisted of open windows at various heights and criss-crossing of lines (Benfey). This painting was the first ever purchased by a museum in his lifetime and marked the beginning of the Impressionism art movement.
Degas wrote numerous letters while in New Orleans with details of the cities architecture and about the people and places he had seen. Many of his letters provided architectural portraits of New Orleans and descriptions of paintings he was currently working on. In a letter to the painter Tissot, Degas wrote excitedly "After having wasted time in the family trying to do portraits in the worst conditions of day that I have ever found or imagined, I have attached myself to the fairly vigorous picture ... Intrieur d'un bureau d'cheterus de Coton la Nlle Orlans, Cotton buyers office." Degas continued to describe the painting to Tissot in detail and with much excitement (Benfey). This changed how Degas felt about painting and gave him the renewed passion he was looking for.
Degas noticed while visiting New Orleans that he was beginning to have a problem with his eyesight. When he arrived in the city he discovered he was developing sensitivity to the bright Louisiana sunlight and spent much of his time indoors. Degas feared going blind and took special care of his vision. He would rest his eyes for long periods. His paintings during this time were mostly indoor subjects or portraits. When he did paint an outdoor subject, he would sit just inside the doorway or threshold. This was visible in his painting, Children on a Doorstep. This painting is partly interior and exterior and is the only painting Degas did of outdoor New Orleans. Degas was fascinated by the racial mingling of life in New Orleans and highlighted this in the painting. It represented a group of children from his extended family being watched over by one of the black nurses from the household. The architectural detail included numerous frames of doorways, windows and shutters and is so detailed the attention is actually drawn away from the family (Benfey).
In 1872 New Orleans was undergoing a Reconstruction due to the Civil War (Taylor) and Degas was intrigued with the latest technological innovations. Fascinated by the Reconstruction, Degas was inspired and use different points of view, cropping and off center compositions in his works. He also experimented with mixing paint with various thinners and trying different techniques. Because Degas was having trouble with his eyesight, he began working with pastels. The colors were more vivid and the subjects did not have to be detailed. Degas would mix pastels so heavily with liquid that it became a paste. He also began to combine pastels and oil in a single painting.
Degas time in New Orleans proved to be a turning point in his career. He completed over twenty paintings during his stay in the city and captured some of the only evidence of what the city looked like at that time. He came to the city of New Orleans to figure out what he wanted to do with his art and accomplished that and so much more. It is not well known about Degas time spent in New Orleans and little has been written about him and his stay. The Degas House once owned by his relatives and where he stayed in 1872 to 1873 is the only known home or studio of Degas in the world that is open to the public (New Orleans Museums) and showcases two of his paintings, the Cotton Office in New Orleans and the Portrait of Mme Rene De Gas nee Estelle Musson, his cousin. It has been said that Degas stay in New Orleans and the city's influence can be found in his works years after he returned to France (Demidko).
- Benfey, Christopher. Degas in New Orleans Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
- Boggs, Jean Sutherland. Degas. Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
- Degashouse. 2 February 2010.
- Demidko, Sergey. Bigeasy. 2 February 2010.
- New Orleans Museums. 2 February 2010.
- Taylor, Joe Gray. New Orleans and Reconstruction. Louisiana Historical Association, 1968.