Edgar Degas And His Pivotal Years In New Orleans, USA

Edgar Degas And His Pivotal Years In New Orleans, USA

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When you hear Edgar Degas, the mind typically conjures images of Paris, ballet dancers, and the world-renowned Impressionist movement.

However, many overlook New Orleans, Louisiana’s profound influence on this legendary artist. You don’t have to travel to France to experience Degas’s life and work. Instead, you can head to the vibrant city of New Orleans, where he painted some of his groundbreaking artworks and shifted his artistic focus in a way that would leave an indelible mark on art history.

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Edgar Degas And His Pivotal Years In New Orleans: The Birthplace Of ‘Better Art’

When the name Edgar Degas is mentioned, it’s easy for one’s imagination to immediately transport to the streets of Paris, surrounded by the grace of ballet dancers and the revolutionary flair of Impressionism.

Yet, New Orleans, Louisiana’s impact on this iconic artist often goes unnoticed. The beauty is that you don’t have to cross the Atlantic to immerse yourself in Degas’ life and artistry. Just venture to the lively city of New Orleans, the locale that hosted some of Degas’ most transformative artistic periods, leaving a lasting legacy on the annals of art history.

Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas

Why Did Edgar Degas Go To New Orleans, And What Did He Do There?

Degas’ journey to New Orleans was partly familial and partly exploratory. His mother was born in New Orleans, and the city was home to his American relatives, specifically his maternal uncle Michel Musson.

Degas was going through a somewhat uncertain phase in his life both personally and artistically, and the trip to New Orleans served multiple purposes, offering a respite from the rigors of the Parisian art world and an opportunity to reconnect with family.

The Familial Ties And Professional Stakes

Upon arrival, Edgar Degas was warmly received by his relatives, who were part of the burgeoning Creole community. The family environment provided emotional sustenance and an array of subjects and settings for his artistic exploration.

Several family members became subjects of his New Orleans works, including his famous painting of his sister-in-law and cousins.

Moreover, New Orleans’ cultural milieu offered a vastly different landscape from what Degas was accustomed to in Europe. Its blend of French and American influences provided a rich tapestry against which he could contrast and refine his artistic techniques and thematic focuses.

Exploring New Themes And Techniques

Degas took advantage of the unique human and physical geography of New Orleans to explore new artistic avenues. He was particularly drawn to the bustling activity of the cotton exchange.

The city’s social and cultural life also profoundly affected him, influencing how he approached the depiction of individuals and groups in social settings, a recurrent motif in his later Parisian works.

A Period Of Transformation

Edgar Degas famously referred to the kind of art he wanted to paint or a kind of better art. He said:

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

Edgar Degas

The transformative “Better Art” that Degas spoke of was not merely a rhetorical device but a genuine, tactile change in his work.

He transitioned from the rigidity of academic art to a more free-flowing, impressionistic style. New Orleans gave him the liberty to experiment without the scrutinizing eyes of Parisian critics and patrons, and it’s here that he began taking bolder steps towards what would later become his signature style.

A Lasting Legacy In New Orleans

Upon his return to Paris, the groundwork laid in New Orleans became apparent as Degas became one of the leading figures of the Impressionist movement. While Paris was the platform that launched him into global prominence, the roots of his transformation are firmly anchored in his New Orleans vacation.

Edgar Degas’ journey to New Orleans was a voyage of discovery in the truest sense, giving him new personal and artistic perspectives. It allowed him to grow and innovate, leaving an indelible imprint on his oeuvre.

A Prolific Period In New Orleans

In 1872 and 1873, Edgar Degas lived in New Orleans, creating a staggering 18 paintings, four drawings, and wrote some letters during his time there. One of the most significant pieces he completed during this period is “The Cotton Office,” also known as “The New Orleans Cotton Exchange.”

Notably, it was the only painting sold to a museum during Degas’ lifetime. However, his most substantial accomplishment in the city was a radical shift in his artistic approach. Degas described it as creating “Better Art,” and this New Orleans-influenced phase laid the groundwork for his involvement in the burgeoning Impressionist movement upon returning to Paris in 1874.

Edgar Degas’ The Cotton Market, New Orleans: Capturing A Unique Moment In Time

When we think of Edgar Degas, our minds often turn to elegant ballerinas, Parisian scenes, and the beginnings of the Impressionist movement. However, one painting that diverges from these themes but remains critical to understanding Degas as an artist and observer of life is “The Cotton Market, New Orleans,” also known as “The Cotton Office.”

In 1873, during Degas’ stay in New Orleans, this oil on canvas work is a fascinating window into a specific time and place, but it is also more than that. It’s a complex interplay of social dynamics, economics, and culture, captured through the lens of a French Impressionist.

A Busy Office Scene

The painting depicts a bustling office space teeming with 13 individuals, each involved in different activities but united by the setting—the world of cotton trading. We see buyers engaged in conversation, brokers scrutinizing samples, and layabouts who seem merely to be present without any particular focus.

At the center, a long table laden with cotton is a literal and metaphorical focal point, drawing all eyes to the commodity that has brought these people together.

Degas’s Artistic Choices And Motivations

The subject matter separates this painting from many of Degas’ more famous works. During his visit to New Orleans, Degas was likely inspired by the environment, particularly the dynamism and energy of the cotton exchange.

However, it wasn’t just the visual appeal that drew him to this subject. Degas was wise, aware that a painting like this might find a keen audience in England—perhaps a wealthy mill owner who would appreciate both the subject and the artistry.

This commercial calculation offers an interesting counterpoint to the more ethereal, ‘art for art’s sake’ works we often associate with Impressionism.

A Social Microcosm

Beyond the vibrant atmosphere and carefully balanced composition, “The Cotton Market, New Orleans” offers a glimpse into the social and economic fabric of the time.

The painting serves as a microcosm of the cotton industry, highlighting its importance in the global trade network of the late 19th century. It also subtly delves into the roles and relationships within this bustling ecosystem, showing how commerce and social dynamics intertwine.

Where To See The Masterpiece

Today, this insightful painting resides in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Pau, France, a small museum in France. Its location far from New Orleans and Paris adds another layer of interest—here is a work of art that has traveled the world much like the commodity it depicts or the artist who created it.

The Cotton Office In New Orleans (1873) By Edgar Degas
The Cotton Office In New Orleans (1873) By Edgar Degas

“The Cotton Office In New Orleans (1873)” may not be the first painting that comes to mind when considering Edgar Degas. Still, it’s a significant work that reflects the artist’s adaptability, keen observational skills, and commercial savvy.

It reminds us that Degas was not just an artist caught up in the bohemian world of Impressionist Paris but also a man deeply attuned to the broader currents of his time.

Degas House: The Sole Degas Residence Open To Public

Degas House In New Orleans
Degas House In New Orleans

Those interested in learning more about Edgar Degas’ life and art can visit the Degas House in New Orleans. The only home or studio in the world where Degas lived and worked is open to the public; this cultural treasure is part of the French Ministry of Culture’s network of the Maisons des Illustres, or “Houses of the Illustrious.”

The Degas House – A Global Recognition

The Degas House stands proudly among 236 other historical homes worldwide, including those of figures like Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Monet, and Marie Curie. It’s the second house in the United States to receive this distinction and one of only four not located in France or French territory.

This prestigious designation was formally recognized in a ceremony on July 15th, 2019, and a permanent marker was unveiled on October 23rd of the same year, commemorating its inclusion in this esteemed network.

You can find out more about the Degas House by clicking on the link below:

The time Edgar Degas spent in New Orleans wasn’t just a footnote in an illustrious career; it was a transformative period that influenced the trajectory of his art and contributed to the birth of a new art movement.

Visiting the Degas House allows art lovers to witness firsthand the environment that contributed to this significant change. Recognized as a house of the illustrious and a French Landmark, the Degas House in New Orleans serves as a living testament to Degas’ artistic journey, enriching the cultural tapestry of the city and offering a profound look into the life and works of one of the art world’s most iconic figures.

So, the next time you’re considering a pilgrimage to experience the world of Edgar Degas, look no further than New Orleans. It’s a city that not only inspired the artist but continues to inspire generations of art lovers and historians.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Why did Edgar Degas spend time in New Orleans?

Edgar Degas visited his relatives in New Orleans in 1872. His mother’s family was from the city, and the trip allowed him to connect with his Creole roots and explore the vibrant culture of the region.

How long did Edgar Degas stay in New Orleans?

Degas spent several months in New Orleans, from the fall of 1872 to early 1873. This period had a significant impact on his artistic style and subject matter.

What artworks did Degas create in New Orleans

During his time in New Orleans, Degas created a series of artworks, including portraits, genre scenes, and landscapes. Some notable pieces include “A Cotton Office in New Orleans” and “Portrait of Estelle Musson.”

How did New Orleans influence Degas’s art?

The vibrant atmosphere of New Orleans, with its diverse people and unique cultural elements, influenced Degas’s choice of subjects and color palette. He moved away from traditional European themes and began incorporating American scenes into his work.

Did Degas interact with other artists in New Orleans?

While in New Orleans, Degas associated with local artists, writers, and intellectuals. He engaged in discussions about art and culture, broadening his perspectives and influencing his artistic evolution.

Were there specific places in New Orleans that inspired Degas?

Degas drew inspiration from various locations in New Orleans, such as the French Quarter, the cotton exchange, and the racetrack. These settings provided him with rich material for his paintings.

How did Degas’s time in New Orleans impact his career?

The experience in New Orleans marked a shift in Degas’s artistic focus. He began to incorporate everyday scenes and American themes into his work, deviating from the traditional European subjects associated with the Impressionist movement.

What is the significance of “A Cotton Office in New Orleans”?

This painting, created during Degas’s time in New Orleans, is considered a masterpiece. It depicts the bustling activity of the cotton trade and reflects Degas’s fascination with American industry and commerce.

Did Degas continue to paint American subjects after leaving New Orleans?

While Degas returned to his familiar themes after leaving New Orleans, the influence of his time in the city persisted in his work. The experience broadened his artistic horizons and contributed to the diversity of his later oeuvre.

How is Degas’s legacy celebrated in New Orleans today?

New Orleans recognizes Degas’s impact through various exhibits, events, and cultural initiatives. The city celebrates its connection to the artist, showcasing his works and commemorating the period when he drew inspiration from the unique atmosphere of New Orleans.

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