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Degas Painted the Creole Aristocrats

He was not yet famous when he arrived in the fall of 1872.

Edgar Degas’ sojourn in the Crescent City seems arbitrary, but the French Impressionist painter had strong Louisiana roots.

His mother, Celestine Musson Degas, was of a well-to-do Creole family in New Orleans, a descendant of some of the city’s first French and Spanish arrivals. She was moved to France as a child, following the untimely death of her mother. Celestine would never see America again.

It was her three sons who would return to New Orleans. A wish fulfilled by proxy.

Edgar was 38 years old by the time he made it to the Crescent City. From October 1872 to March 1873, the painter took residence in his brother René’s home, a stately Greek Revival on Esplanade Avenue, shared with his wife Estelle Musson.

Photo: Paul Broussard

It was a charmed neighborhood. A green strip of neutral ground cleaved the wide avenue in two. Grand homes ran up each side. Iron fences framed small territories. The columns of mansions measured out physical space like a metronome.

The street, running from the Mississippi to Beauregard Circle, was–and remains–a thing of beautiful geometry.

For five months, Edgar strolled the orange gardens, admired the faces of Creole women, feared illness on hot winds.

“Louisiana must be respected by all her children,” Edgar wrote.

“I myself am nearly one of them."

Photo: New Orleans Museum of Art

A time of political tumult set the backdrop further still. New Orleans was in the throes of post-Civil War disarray. The Reconstruction was on. The new policies it brought altered the landscape, reshaped the existing society.

Edgar Degas came to document what one might describe as the dying breaths of Creole decadence.

He created seventeen works while he was here: men assessing the quality of their cotton, women in the middle of a parlor performance, children dressed in white. In each painting, a particular slice Southern life, one undeniably on the wane.

Degas returned to France that spring reinvigorated, leaving behind him New Orleans’ troubles–and some traces of his time there.

“Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas” hangs today in the New Orleans Museum of Art. The residence he called home is a bed and breakfast. The Degas House. Weddings are held in its courtyard of herringbone brick, where flowers cascade out of iron pots and warm lights criss-cross overhead.

The trees planted out front on Esplanade, once thin and reedy, are now hearty trunks of live oak, evidence of the passage of time and a city many times altered since Degas walked its streets.

Visit New Orleans and start your story with #OneTimeInNOLA.

Jenny is a writer of culture both high and low. Her work has appeared in V Magazine, Lenny Letter, and TIME, to name a few. She first fell in love with New Orleans over buttermilk biscuits and strawberry preserves. She’s been a NOLA regular ever since.

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