Perhaps more than any other impressionist, Edgar Degas continues to fascinate. But why? It may have to do with his signature mix of familiarity and mystery, qualities that describe both the personality and the art of this Paris-born, self-proclaimed "son of Louisiana." Anyone who heard art historian Marilyn Brown's recent lecture "Degas in New Orleans: Cotton and Global Capitalism" could infer as much as she eloquently explored the dynamics of his painting A Cotton Office in New Orleans as both a family portrait and a sign of the times, as his prominent local kin stoically struggled with the challenges they faced in 1870s New Orleans. The Cotton Office became the first impressionist painting purchased by a French museum, which turned Degas into an art star, but this Newcomb expo contains nothing quite so epochal. Instead, these mostly small prints and drawings read almost like a visual diary of his everyday life. Works by other artists in his circle reinforce an overall impression of personal mementos, like the memorabilia left behind by an esteemed, if eccentric, public figure.
In Degas' best-known paintings, ballet dancers appear in an exuberant nimbus of pastel luminosity, but here they are more likely to be hanging out backstage. Similarly, some preoccupied figures on a beach seem oblivious to the sun and surf, and in a lithograph, Before the Race 1895 (pictured), the jockeys just seem to be horsing around. Such scenes, typical of his prints, convey a candid view of everyday life in 19th-century France. His drawings are more minimal. In an early portrait from 1853, his swarthy younger brother, Achille, slouches decorously as he gazes back at us. In some later paintings, he looks distinctly Afro-Creole. Degas, in fact, had many black local relatives, most notably Norbert Rillieux, the inventor of modern sugar refining. Diverse kinships were commonplace in 19th-century New Orleans. Degas always tried to be true to his subjects, but few were more mysterious than his own aristocratic, yet exotic, family.