Did famous artist Edgar Degas really live in the Degas House in New Orleans? Was he a long-time resident or just a short-time visitor?
Edgar Degas, born Hilaire Germain Edgar De Gas, did not own the house that bears his name at 2306 Esplanade Ave., but he did live and maintain a studio there during a visit to his mother's relatives, the Musson family, from October 1872 to March 1873.
Degas was the only French Impressionist painter to travel to the United States and, according to Christopher Benfey's book Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable, the painter's stay here "marked a key moment" in his 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," Benfey wrote.
Degas' mother, Celestine Musson Degas, was born in New Orleans to a prominent Creole family descended from some of the original French and Spanish settlers. Her father, Germain Musson, moved to New Orleans from his native Haiti and made his fortune in Mexican silver and Louisiana cotton. When Celestine was a girl, her father took his children to France for a formal education, and it was there that Celestine fell in love and married banker Auguste De Gas when she was 18. She never returned to Louisiana (Celestine died when Degas, the first of her five children, was 13 years old), but her stories about the city led Degas to visit family here.
When Degas decided to visit his brother Rene, who had married Estelle Musson (the daughter of Celestine's brother Michel) in New Orleans, he was 38 and already had painted the first of his pictures of ballet dancers, but had not found a consistent following among collectors.
He began painting contemporary life: a famous scene at the New Orleans Cotton Exchange and portraits of his family and their friends. Degas was not just painting portraits, however, Benfey wrote, "He was also painting a society, and specifically the decimated Creole world of post-Civil War New Orleans," when the social status of Creoles declined.
Interestingly, the Mussons did not own the residence where they hosted Degas; they rented it. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Degas House was built in 1852 by architect Benjamin Rodriguez as his residence. The original mansion was divided into two homes during the 1920s, and the nonprofit Edgar Degas Foundation has restored the two houses, which now are open to the public for tours and functions as well as bed and breakfast accommodations.
I enjoyed your recent column about the Bienville Monument (Oct. 26, 2010). I was just wondering as to the date when it moved to Bienville Place. I moved here in 1988 and recall it being near the Union Passenger terminal till the mid-1990s, when it was moved to its present location. Am I crazy? Or might it have been a misprint and it was actually November 1996 when the move occurred?
No, you are not crazy; it's likely Old Blake's fingers weren't as nimble as usual when writing the piece on the Bienville monument. The date has been corrected from 1966 to 1996 in the online version of the column (www.bestofneworleans.com/gambit/blake-pontchartrain/Content?oid=1383293). Thanks for keeping me on my toes.