Edgar Degas, Impressionist Painter, Lived and Painted in New Orleans

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Michel Musson’s home (now Degas House) during the time that Edgar Degas lived here with his Creole Family 1872 – 1873.

Part 1.

This story is legend in New Orleans, told over and over again, but not much known outside of the Crescent City.  How is this possible ?  Edgar Degas was the only French Impressionist Painter to spend time in the United States and there is a body of work, a trove of paintings and pastel drawings made during his stay as evidence of the time he was here. He spent five months living with his American Creole Family in their home, arriving in 1872 before All Saints Day and leaving in 1873 after Mardi Gras.  Following his stay, he liked to be known as  “un Fils de Louisiana” – a Son of Louisiana.

Degas came from a large family: the Mussons,  the French Creole side living in New Orleans and the De Gas side, (now known as Degas), living in Paris and Naples..   His Mother, Marie Celestine Musson and her Brother Michel, were both born in New Orleans and were descended from some of the original French and Spanish Settlers.  When their Father was suddenly widowed he moved  to Paris with his Children  where they  were educated and grew up.

       Edgar Degas’ Mother, Marie Celestine De Gas (nee Musson) from New Orleans. and Paris.

At eighteen, Marie Celestine fell in love with  a neighbor, a Banker by the name of Auguste De Gas.  They were married in 1832 when she was just eighteen and even though the marriage was allegedly not the happiest, they went on to have five Children.

  The oldest was named Hilaire-Germaine- Edgar De Gas, known to the world as Edgar Degas, preferring the less pretentious way of spelling his last name.  Later on in life, Degas would become the famous world renowned Artist and one of the Founders of the Impressionist Movement in France.

The De Gas Family business was Banking, but rather than follow that path, Edgar Degas chose to be an Artist.  His younger Brother Rene had been living in New Orleans, working in the Musson Family Cotton Brokerage and made a visit to Paris in 1872.  While there, he persuaded Edgar Degas to accompany him back to the United States.

At the time, Degas’ Art Career had stalled and he was trying to re-define himself as an artist. He was painting the “Ballerinas”,  for which he is famous,  but  felt vulnerable and  was searching for a new identity.  His eye sight was failing and he feared he was going blind.   Degas welcomed the idea of a change and was curious about his Mother’s  Creole Family in New Orleans.  Traveling together from Paris, first by boat to New York City and then by train to New Orleans,  Rene and Edgar Degas arrived after a lengthy journey that took between three and four weeks.

Degas was thirty eight years old when he came to New Orleans near the end of October 1872.  His late Mother’s Brother, Michel Musson, had returned to New Orleans from Paris, and became a successful Cotton Broker.   Degas was invited to stay with his Uncle Michel in a large, luxurious rented home on Esplanade Avenue, that accommodated seventeen relatives and four servants.  It was a time of prosperity in New Orleans and the French speaking Creoles sought out the Esplanade Avenue neighborhood to separate themselves from the English speaking“Americans” who had built expensive homes in The Garden District. This neighborhood is every bit as beautiful as The Garden District with Mansions favoring Greek Revival style. It was a Millionaire’s Row for the affluent Creoles and Michel Musson’s rented home was in the best part of Esplanade Avenue, known as Esplanade Ridge.

Esplanade Avenue is a wide leafy street,  with a median, (called “neutral ground” in New Orleans”), running  down the center. Today, on either side, it is bordered by mature live oak and sycamore trees, planted in the 1860’s, with overhead branches that create a shady “umbrella”, casting dappled shadows on the street.

In the 1920’s, the original Degas House was divided down the middle and separated into two houses, creating a twenty foot space between them that has remained like that ever since. They are set back slightly from the road, behind mature trees, with a garden of tropical vegetation featuring magnolias, ginger plants and anthuriums.

The Degas Houses are similar to most of the neighboring homes, with tall columns, high ceilings, double galleries, painted wooden shutters and ornamental iron work.

Two conspicuous historic signs stand on the brick paved sidewalk outside the house where Degas spent five months in New Orleans, drawing attention to the house where he lived.

 Degas was an elegant man, beautifully attired in a frock coat, with hat, gloves, lace handkerchief and walking stick.  He had a quick wit and a sharp tongue, and was known to be argumentative. While living here, he  enjoyed the Clubs, Bars, Restaurants and the multi-cultural social life of New Orleans. His Uncle provided a studio on the first floor, and with its own entrance he was able to work or come and go as he pleased. He preferred to paint indoors as the light troubled his sensitive eyes.  He enjoyed being surrounded by relatives and was  intrigued with the Creole culture that was new to him.  His Mother and Grandmother had both come from  a prominent Creole family and  he found he had ancestors from France, Spain and the West Indies.  Although he was occupied painting portraits of his Family, their friends and business associates, he was at the same time observing what was going on in a turbulent and changing Society .

Degas spent much time with his Sister in Law, Estelle Musson Degas who was married to his younger Brother Rene, who would later on bring disgrace to the Family.   She was also losing her eye sight and would eventually go blind. Estelle was one of his favorite models and he memorialized her in several paintings, the most famous one,  “Mme Rene Musson De Gas” that now hangs in the New Orleans Museum of Art, the only Degas painting hanging in a museum in New Orleans.
Although there was much prosperity, these were also politically volatile and troubling times in New Orleans with changing political and racial climates.   New Orleans was in crisis, trying to recover from the Civil War, in which it had suffered big losses. There was still divisiveness  between the Northerners and the Southerners, and the French speaking  segment of the population.  There were conflicts between the Black and White Population in business as well as the aftermath of the Abolition of Slavery that gave the Slaves new freedoms. The Musson Family were politically active and acutely involved in this political scene. ”Old New Orleans” and the quaint Creole way of life was changing as they lost their grip.  Along with this, New Orleans was growing,  It was the  primary entry point for Immigration into the United States and was a melting pot of cultures with the influx of people arriving to live here. It grew to become the fourth largest City in the United States , with an important Port that rivaled New York, with its exports of sugar,  wheat and cotton.

It was in this highly charged political atmosphere and against this turbulent backdrop that Degas  was able to do a lot of work, creating eighteen works of oil on canvas, as well as many pastel drawings during this short period. He was inspired living in this atmosphere, to paint and draw with a renewed spirit spending time with his warm and welcoming Creole family, observing them as they went about their lives.

Degas also enjoyed going to the Cotton Office where the men of the Family worked and operated the Cotton Brokerage Company owned by his Uncle Michel, observing them at work.  This too was memorialized in a painting and was the most important painting he did during his stay in New Orleans,   It shows his Uncle Michel, examining raw cotton, his brother Rene reading “The Daily Picayune” newspaper, his Brother Achilles resting against the wall and the other characters, including himself, going about their business.  It took a while for this particular painting  to be sold but ultimately it was bought and is still hanging in the Musee des Baux Arts in Pau, France.  This was the only painting sold to a Museum during Degas lifetime and it established him as a serious artist affording him financial stability for the first time

The five month period that Edward Degas spent in New Orleans became a period  of recuperation, giving him time to find new direction and re-invent himself.  His style underwent  changes that continued when he returned to Paris, where he became one of the Founding Members of the Impressionist Movement in France.   With his spirit renewed and a fresh resolve about his work, he went on to become a world famous and successful artist, using several mediums, including oil, pastel. and sculpture.

New Orleans had been the catalyst. The time spent here and the effect it had on Edgar Degas  both personally and as an artist,  cannot be overstated.

Edgar Degas  1834 – 1917.

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Part 2.

At the end of the  1870’s, long after Degas returned to Paris, his Uncle Michel was forced to give up the beautiful house on Esplanade Avenue due to an economic downturn and a change in his fortunes. Subsequently the house became dilapidated, was converted into smaller apartments and for many years fell into disrepair, when the story suddenly takes a new turn,

One beautiful day In 1993, David Villarubia, a retired airline pilot, born and raised in New Orleans was driving down Esplanade Avenue in his convertible car with the top down, enjoying the day.  Passing Esplanade Avenue, he noticed a “For Sale By Owner” sign on a house. He stopped to to take a closer look and  realized it was the house  where Edgar Degas had lived for five months.  He contacted the Seller and by midnight, managed to get a Signed Contract to purchase the property.   It was David Villarubia who appreciated the significance of this historic home, the interesting legacy of the property and its value to the history of New Orleans.  Doing thorough research, looking into the notarial records of the building as well as searching out architectural renderings of the original house, Villarubia began renovations.


The restoration included restoring Degas house to its former glory, including acquiring furnishings of the period, recreating the rooms to look similar to how they were captured in Degas’ paintings during the time  he was staying with his Uncle.  It also includes a Museum and Gift Shop, as well as a studio to replicate Degas’ studio, with an easel, paints and pastels and a bed, Copies of pastel drawings attributed to Degas hang on the walls,

Upstairs, is a Bed and Breakfast Inn  where guests can stay and above that are private rooms that serve as a home for David Villarubia when he is in New Orleans. Between the two houses, where they had been divided, a garden has been created, to unite them and also to serve as an outdoor area for events and weddings.

Recognizing what David Villarubia did to preserve the Degas Legacy for New Orleans, he was honored as a Chevalier of the French National Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture in 2009,  an unusual honor for an American and a person not living in France.

There are twice daily tours of Degas House, that can also include breakfast  in the Bed and Breakfast Inn.   Two of the guides are direct descendants of the Family, and I was fortunate to have as my guide,  a great, grandniece of Edgar Degas;

If  you visit New Orleans and if this subject matter interests you, please find time to do the tour – it is very different to anything else you will experience in New Orleans  and is the only Degas Museum outside of France.

Degas House.
2306 Esplanade Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70119
Tel. 504/658-4100
info@degashouse.com
www.degashouse.com
Tours:10.30 a.m.an 1.45 p.m.
Cost:  $50.00  Tour and  Breakfast
$30.00 for the tour only.
Hours:  9.00 a.m. – 5.00 p.m.

 

 

 

 

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