Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cableby Christopher Benfey
Edgar Degas traveled from Paris to New Orleans during the fall of 1872 to visit the American branch of his mother's family, the Mussons. This war-torn, diverse, and conflicted city elicited from Degas some of his finest paintings. He arrived at a key moment in the cultural history of this most exotic of American cities, still recovering from the agony of the Civil… See more details below
Edgar Degas traveled from Paris to New Orleans during the fall of 1872 to visit the American branch of his mother's family, the Mussons. This war-torn, diverse, and conflicted city elicited from Degas some of his finest paintings. He arrived at a key moment in the cultural history of this most exotic of American cities, still recovering from the agony of the Civil War. This decisive period of Reconstruction, in which his American relatives were importantly involved, was also the time when the American writers Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable were beginning to mine the resources of New Orleans culture and history.
Benfey (American Literature/Mt. Holyoke Coll.; The Double Life of Stephen Crane, 1992) claims the French painter's five-month sojourn with his mother's family "is something of a legend in New Orleans." There's nothing legendary in Benfey's workaday account. A private man bent on being "famous but unknown," Degas stayed indoors because his eyesight (which he fancied was failing) couldn't stand the intense southern light; he pined for black models but painted family members instead. Admitting the challenge posed by his "notoriously secret" subject, Benfey expands his critical field of vision to encompass New Orleans writers George Washington Cable and Kate Chopineven though there's no evidence they crossed paths with Degas. Their work, obsessed with the enormous changes transforming New Orleans society in the Civil War's aftermath, is supposed to help us "decipher the underlying meanings in Degas paintings and letters." Chopin gets top billing, but the largely forgotten Cable gets more ink, including a provocative but unsubstantiated suggestion that this creator of the archetypal "tragic mulatto" is the granddaddy of southern literature. Benfey, the first biographer to focus on Degas's American roots, adds valuable insight to the artist's work with his analysis of the effects American technology, architecture, and commerce had on his paintings. But Benfey's glosses of Chopin and Cable don't bring Degas into sharper focus; they push the enigmatic Frenchman further to the edges of an already sprawling, speculative biography. Conjecture about the psychological root of Degas's racial ambivalencenamely the possibility of black blood in the American side of the familyis overstated and underdocumented.
Ambitious, perhaps, but Benfey's wide net nevertheless allows his primary subject to slip away, lost in a fog of lit-crit theory and psychobabble.
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Esplanade: An Introduction
If you should walk down Esplanade in New Orleans, with your back to the river and the dark green buildings of the old French Market, you will be skirting the border of the French Quarter, or Vieux Carre, on your left, while on your right jut out the oddly angled, herringboned streets of the Faubourg Marigny. The grand, high-ceilinged houses lining both sides of Esplanade, with their white columns and black ironwork along the balconies, date from the past century. The generous proportions of the shaded avenue, with its wide, tree-lined median or "neutral ground," as it is called in New Orleans (testifying to old enmities between neighborhoods), mark a sharp contrast with the tight fit of the streets in the Quarter. Here on Esplanade you can stretch your legs and breathe, though the air is the thick, stagnant stuff wafting from the Mississippi. With the arching branches of oaks and magnolias dimming the viscous greenish light, you can almost imagine you are traversing an aquarium.
Farther down, past Rampart Street, where an earthen wall once marked and protected another side of the Quarter, you begin to wonder how many more of these mansions there could be, one after the other like a formal receiving line. Who could afford to live in such luxury? Are they embassies? Funeral parlors? Did the U.S. Mint at the base of Esplanade spread its riches down the luxurious avenue? But as you leave the Quarter farther behind, you note that more and more of the houses are in evident disrepair, their Greek Revival features chipped and blurred, showing the wood under their marmoreal disguise. Chaotic clusters of mailboxes and doorbells indicate that they have been partitioned; careless piles of rubbish on verandas and unkempt lawns suggest apathetic renters.
Then, farther still, as the road turns almost imperceptibly upward (there are no hills in low-lying New Orleans), you have entered the neighborhood called Esplanade Ridge. Bayou Road crosses the broad avenue diagonally here, on its way to Lake Pontchartrain. On the left, metallic and scarred like a Civil War marker, is a sign that informs you that Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas, the French Impressionist painter, lived here in 1872. The house behind the sign looks no different from its neighbors. Its black cast-iron balconies, backed by green shutters, stretch like spider webs between white columns.
Edgar Degas travelled to New Orleans during the fall of 1872 to spend a few months visiting the considerable American branch of his family. His visit is something of a legend in New Orleans, told and retold with the casual disregard for historical accuracy that affects many New Orleans memories, but it is barely known elsewhere. The journey to New Orleans marked a key moment in Degas's career, however. 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.
As chance would have it, Degas's five-month sojourn in New Orleans coincided with an extraordinarily contentious period in the stormy political history of the city. One could argue that it was the decisive moment in Reconstruction New Orleans, as the city, under Federal control and under the constant threat of military occupation, tried to recover from the ravages of the Civil War. Degas's American relatives were among the leaders in this political upheaval.
It was also a key moment in the cultural history of this most exotic of American cities. During precisely this uneasy period, several major American writers were beginning to mine the resources of New Orleans culture and history, often choosing the same subjects, experiencing the same events, and moving in the same social circles, as did Edgar Degas. What was it about this war-torn, diverse, and conflicted city that elicited from Degas some of his finest works? What can his paintings and letters tell us about New Orleans during a pivotal period in Reconstruction Louisiana? And what do we need to know about the intricate weave of New Orleans society--French and "American," black and white, native and newly arrived--to make sense of Degas's sojourn there?
In an attempt to answer these questions, this book follows the interwoven lives of several men and women of New Orleans during the years surrounding the Civil War. The central figures are three: Edgar Degas and the writers George Washington Cable and Kate Chopin. All three spent varying lengths of time in New Orleans during the 1870s. Ties of friendship and family linked these people, in turn, to others, connecting the stubbornly French (and still French-speaking) Creole colony in nineteenth-century New Orleans to its little-known mirror image: the "Louisiana colony" in France--"notre petite colonie Louisianaise," as Degas's Parisian uncle Eugene Musson affectionately called it. This book places Degas within this transatlantic network of prominent individuals and families--both white and black--who maintained close connections with New Orleans, and moved freely between France and America, as though the two "colonies" constituted a single cultural realm.
Degas was the only major French painter of the Impressionist generation to travel to the United States and paint what he saw there. Other French painters had ties to the New World, to be sure. As a young man, Edouard Manet had visited Brazil while working as a sailor, and painted some of the exotic sights, especially the women. Odilon Redon claimed to have been conceived in Louisiana, before travelling back to France in his mother's womb--he ascribed his taste for bright colors to the American South. Camille Pissarro's childhood in the Jewish community of the Virgin Islands gave him subjects for a few early sketches, though once settled in France he never looked back. To the extent that she turned herself into a French painter (under her close friend Degas's tutelage), Mary Cassatt is perhaps an exception. Nonetheless, it is surprising that Degas--one of the greatest painters to try his hand at American subjects--has received so little attention as an astute interpreter of the American scene.
For Degas, who liked to call himself a fils de Louisiane, the American journey was a homecoming of sorts. His mother, Celestine Musson Degas, had been born in New Orleans into a prominent Creole family. Over the centuries, "Creole" has meant many different things. For the Degas-Musson family it meant that Celestine was descended from some of the original French and Spanish settlers of New Orleans. Her mother's name, Rillieux, was also familiar in the free black community of New Orleans; this book is the first to reveal the intimate and hitherto unsuspected connections between the black and white branches of the family.
Celestine's father, Germain Musson, had fled his native Haiti (the French colony of Saint-Domingue) after the triumph of Toussaint L'Ouverture's revolutionary forces in 1804, and made a fortune in Louisiana cotton and Mexican silver. At the corner of Canal Street and Royal, where the French Quarter joins the newer commercial or "American" sector, Musson erected, in 1825, an imposing commercial building of New England granite. In its shadow occurred some of the most explosive mass meetings of the Reconstruction period.
Maria Desiree Musson, Degas's maternal grandmother, died suddenly in 1819, at the age of twenty-five. The architect Benjamin Latrobe, who was then working in New Orleans, wandered by chance into her funeral Mass at the St. Louis Cathedral. "The Church was filled with her friends," he noted, "each of whom carried a lighted taper, and the service was long & loud." Grief-stricken, Germain took his children, including Celestine and her older brother Michel, back to France to be educated. There Celestine fell in love with her neighbor, a young banker called Auguste Degas; it was said that their romance bloomed in the garden between their houses.
Celestine was eighteen when they married, during the summer of 1832. Her father's sale of a young slave girl in New Orleans boosted her already respectable dowry. At the birth of her eldest child, Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas, in 1834, she had not yet reached her twentieth birthday. To celebrate the birth, and to link his eldest son to the "mother country," Edgar Degas's father arranged that a house in New Orleans, a Creole cottage on North Rampart Street, be purchased in the newborn's name.
Meanwhile, Celestine's brother Michel Musson acquired a European education--he was a classmate of Longfellow's at Gottingen--and returned to New Orleans. Musson was a successful businessman in cotton and insurance until Reconstruction policies, and the worldwide depression of 1873, threw a wrench into his finances. Something of a social chameleon, Musson called himself "Michael" when convenient, and moved freely between the two major parts of New Orleans white society: the old-line French-speaking Creoles, who lived mainly below (or downriver from) Canal Street, in and around the French Quarter; and the more recent "American" settlers in the city, who inhabited the commercial and residential neighborhoods, especially the Garden District, on the "uptown" side of Canal.
For Celestine, however, there was to be no return to her native city. Her marriage was a moody one, built of silences and resentment. Accustomed to the social whirl of New Orleans, Celestine complained that in Paris she "passed my life, my youth, next to the hearth, never going even once to a ball, or even to the smallest party. Auguste, who's getting more and more fed up with society, turns a deaf ear to my prayers. There were occasional visitors from Louisiana, like the dashing young sugar-planter and horse-breeder Duncan Kenner. But Celestine would quickly sink back into depression. Years later Degas confided to the poet Paul Valery a painful childhood memory of his parents at lunch:
His [Degas's] mother, vexed by something his father had said, would drum her fingers irritably on the edge of the table, with an "Auguste! Auguste!" His father would sit tight and then, the meal over, sidle through the door, fling a cloak round his shoulders and glide noiselessly downstairs.
Celestine had five children in eleven years, with the youngest, Rene, born in 1845. Two years later, when Edgar was thirteen, Celestine Degas was dead. The early loss of his mother scarred Degas for life. Motherhood, from that time forward, was always associated in his mind--and in some of his greatest paintings--with mourning.
While Edgar Degas was growing up in Paris, Louisiana must have seemed impossibly remote, and yet there were constant reminders of it. He often heard his mother speak of New Orleans with longing and nostalgia. And visitors, including his grandfather and namesake Germain Musson, brought news of American friends and relatives. With his other grandfather, Hilaire Degas (whose name he also bore), in Naples, Degas seemed destined to look to not one but two exotic realms--Italy and Louisiana--for his sense of self and national identity.
Italy was crucial to Degas's early education as a painter, which offers the paradox of a traditionally trained autodidact. In 1845, Degas entered the secondary school of Louis-le-Grand, and remained there for eight years. He seems to have made little favorable impression on his teachers, even in drawing class. Within a couple of weeks of receiving his baccalaureate in 1853, Degas obtained permission to copy at the Louvre, part of the standard apprenticeship of aspiring French painters. He briefly attended law school (a concession to his father, who expected his eldest son to take over the family banking firm) and, for one semester, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, before his formal education stumbled to an end.
As with so many innovative minds, Degas's real education was elsewhere, accompanying his father, a connoisseur of early Italian art, as he made the rounds of dealers and collectors, or meeting his idol Ingres, who admonished Degas to "Draw lines, lots of lines, either from memory or from nature." He was already painting accomplished portraits of family members, such as the masterly 1855 rendition of his youngest brother, Rene (Smith College Art Museum), when he decided to pursue the Italian sojourn expected of French painters. With his father's backing, he could do so on his own, rather than under the auspices of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and its academy in Rome, the Villa Medici.
For three years, beginning in the summer of 1856, Degas divided his time between the cities of Naples, Florence, and Rome. Italy was the world of his father, who had grown up in Naples, and his grandfather, who had established the banking firm of Degas Padre e Figli after fleeing France during the French Revolution. (Both Degas's grandfathers left their native realms, Haiti and France, after betting on the losing side during revolutionary upheavals.) Degas sketched in the Uffizi and the Vatican collections, read Dante, and made friends among the painters gathered in Rome, one of whom, Joseph-Gabriel Tourny, wrote to Degas in 1858: "We are always thinking of the Degas who grumbles and the Edgar who growls."
Even in the Italian world of Degas's father, his mother's Louisiana sometimes intruded. In August of 1858, Auguste De Gas praised his son for a drawing of Angele and Gabrielle Beauregard, ten-year-old twins of a famous New Orleans family (they were nieces of the "Creole General" Beauregard) who were visiting Rome. Auguste was less impressed with three other portraits Edgar painted of these Louisiana visitors, including Mme. and M. Millaudon, the mother and stepfather of the twins. Fifteen years later, Degas was reunited with the Millaudon family on their home turf.
In 1858, Degas also began work on the masterpiece of his youth, The Bellelli Family (Musee d'Orsay), with its frontal treatment of a family divided: one daughter solidly in her doleful mother's camp, the other tugging towards her seated and estranged father. The parents are Degas's beloved aunt Laura Bellelli--pregnant and in mourning for her recently deceased father, Hilaire Degas, whose portrait hangs in the background--and her husband, Gennaro, banished from his native Naples for his participation in the revolution of 1848. Degas called the painting Family Portrait, underscoring both its generic treatment of family unhappiness and its record of three generations of his own family.
During the following decade, the dislocations caused by the American Civil War brought the French and Louisiana wings of Degas's family closer together. By 1870, Degas's restless younger brothers, Rene and Achille, had moved to New Orleans, refusing (with Edgar's support) to take their places in the family banking business in Paris or Naples. Like their father, they insisted on calling themselves "De Gas," flourishing a bogus coat-of-arms in their adopted country. Rene promptly married his first cousin Estelle, a Civil War widow and one of Michel Musson's three daughters. The ill-fated alliance knit the precarious fortunes of the two families even more closely together.
A visit with Rene's family, who were expecting a child in December, was a major motivation for Degas's journey to New Orleans. But there were other reasons as well. Degas had not yet settled on the subjects and styles that would occupy him throughout his career. He had painted his first pictures of ballet rehearsals and racehorses, but was uncertain about their quality. His commitment to painting contemporary life was recent and wavering, and he had not yet established a consistent market for his work. His service in the National Guard during the Prussian siege of Paris, and the slaughter that followed the establishment of the Commune in 1871, had left him exhausted and depressed. When Rene visited Paris during the summer of 1872, and the brothers visited the sites where Edgar had served, Rene extended an invitation to accompany him back to New Orleans.
Degas was thirty-eight when he began his five-month stay in the Crescent City, a visit that extended between the great New Orleans holidays of All Saints' Day and Mardi Gras. This is a Degas we do not know well. Almost all the vivid, eyewitness accounts we have--from the writers Paul Valery and Daniel Halevy, from the painters George Moore and Walter Sickert--date from a quarter of a century later, when Degas, celebrated and successful, had developed a crusty, cantankerous carapace, from which he emerged occasionally to deliver his famously caustic and enigmatic mots. The Degas we meet in the early seventies, by contrast, is engaging and eager to please. A photograph taken in New Orleans shows a bearded man with a sailor's cap perched jauntily on his head. He holds himself upright, with a hint of the soldier that he still considered himself to be, but there is a friendly, amused look in his dark eyes.
Degas was showing his first gray hairs, but he had barely begun the career that led to his lasting fame. Much of the work for which he is best known--the dancers, the bathers, the racehorses--was still in the future. So were the Impressionist exhibitions, in which he played such an important role. Degas in New Orleans was in transition, carefully weighing his options as he reinvented himself as a painter.
And what did he paint there? His family and their friends and business associates, mainly. Despite the brevity of his stay, however, Degas wasn't simply painting family portraits, like an itinerant painter making his New Orleans stop. He was also painting a society, and specifically the decimated Creole world of post-Civil War New Orleans. This self-styled aristocracy, always scornful of modern business practices, had already, before the war, financially lost out to the "American invasion" that followed the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and statehood nine years later. While Creoles lamented the infusion of English-speaking "foreigners," New Orleans was quickly transformed into the major city of the South, and a port city that rivaled New York in the sheer volume of its trade.
The Civil War put an end to what remained of the Creoles' social status as well. Old Creole families like the Mussons continued to speak French and to cling to the props of the Ancien Regime way of life: the box at the opera, the mansion on Esplanade, the black servants. But financial circumstances forced the closing of the opera during the winter season of 1872, and the mansion on Esplanade was rented, not owned, by Musson. "Not own your residence!" exclaims an old Creole matron in a Grace King story set during the 1870s in New Orleans. "As soon not own your own tomb as your residence!"
"Fair France still has a quarter of a foot in Louisiana," Degas remarked resignedly to his friend the painter James Tissot. "The Creole cannot measure strength with the Yankee." One result of the crumbling world of the Creoles was a powerful nostalgia for the pre-war world. The precarious status of the Creoles--beaten by the uptown "Americans" before the Civil War, and by the Northern Yankees during and after it--had another, more troubling result, in their increasingly desperate attempts to restore their lost prestige.
In New Orleans, Degas happened to be living in the midst of a group of men of such strong political convictions, and such an acute sense of their own slipping status, that they were willing to resort to violence to seize what they regarded as their birthright. For these men, many of them Creoles like Musson, the enemy was the Reconstruction government made up of opportunist Northern politicians (dubbed "carpetbaggers") and their supporters among the freed slaves. Degas arrived just in time to witness the corrupt state election of 1872, and stayed long enough for the first of several coup attempts that followed. The bitterness arising from the election--which placed an African-American governor briefly in office--lasted for several years, culminating in the bloody confrontation of 1874 known as the "Battle of Liberty Place." In this pitched street battle, members of an all-white militia called the Crescent City White League fought with the integrated Metropolitan police, and thirty people died before Federal troops restored order.
The Musson family was deeply enmeshed in the very highest reaches of New Orleans politics. Michel Musson had been a leader in the "Unification Movement," an attempt to bring about cooperation between white and black businessmen. When Unification failed to catch hold in the rest of Louisiana, many of its participants, including Musson, looked to more radical measures to overcome the Reconstruction regime. Musson himself presided over the white supremacist White League's rally, just before the Liberty Place battle, while his son-in-law William Bell (another inhabitant of the Esplanade house) served as treasurer for the White League. Bell's friend and business partner, General Fred N. Ogden, was the military commander of the White League militia.
The involvement of his family in these events gave a turbulent backdrop to Degas's sojourn in New Orleans. Even the Mardi Gras festivities that winter devolved into violence. The political turmoil in New Orleans turned out to be a prelude to more personal upheaval for the Musson-Degas clan, which suffered an extraordinary series of deaths, desertions, and scandals.
Just as the world of "Old New Orleans," with its quaint Creole customs and incendiary resentments, was on the wane, it became a rich subject for such writers as George Cable and Kate Chopin, whose works often help us to decipher the underlying meanings in Degas's paintings and letters. Cable was a cotton clerk and newspaperman by profession. A native of the city, he had fought for the losing side in the Civil War. By late 1872, while Degas was getting his bearings in the city, Cable was writing his first stories about New Orleans. In their seductive accounts of voodoo, quadroon mistresses, pirates, haunted houses, friction between Creoles and Americans, and so on, Cable's stories, collected in Old Creole Days, set the pattern for all later evocations of "Old New Orleans." His complex first novel, The Grandissimes, deploys a vivid cast of black and white members of the same family as they weave their interlocking destinies in the shadow of the "great mother-mansion of the Grandissimes," located on Esplanade.
When her own Creole stories were favorably compared to Cable's, Kate Chopin was delighted. Such praise indicated that she had learned her lessons well. Though descended from Louisiana Creoles on her mother's side, Chopin was a native of St. Louis. A passionate supporter of the Confederacy in her youth, she lost a beloved half-brother in the war, and the ghosts of the conflict haunt many of her finest stories. Chopin fell in love with New Orleans on her first visit there, in 1869, when she stayed in a house just off Esplanade; within a year she had fallen for a New Orleanian as well, when a young cotton factor called Oscar Chopin visited St Louis. They settled in New Orleans in 1870, and Oscar set up his cotton business next door to the Musson firm on Carondelet Street. Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening is a portrait of New Orleans during the 1870s. Even as it registers the lingering effects of the Civil War on New Orleans society, The Awakening portrays a domestic "civil war" between mismatched New Orleanians. Like Cable, Chopin placed the major address of her novel, and the breakdown of the Creole-American marriage at its center, on Esplanade--the main artery of the old Creole world.
Both Cable and Chopin had close ties to the White League. Cable was a firm believer in civil rights for blacks, but the man who served as Cable's literary mentor, and encouraged him to write his first novel, was a prominent propagandist for the League. Oscar Chopin had cooled his heels in France during the Civil War; the White League disturbances of 1874 gave him a second chance to fight, and he seized it.
George Cable called New Orleans a "hybrid city," and part of the myth and the truth of New Orleans is that it has long been a crossroads of different cultures, often in conflict, sometimes in harmony. Founded by the French in the early eighteenth century, under Spanish rule for thirty-five years after the French and Indian War, the colony was returned to the French under Napoleon, then hastily sold to the young United States, like a mature person turned over to the whims of a child. And all this before the Civil War.
Not only did New Orleans receive the confluences of any great port city--recently arrived sailors looking for a good time and recent immigrants looking for a good life--it also experienced as deeply as any city in the United States the interracial intimacy of slavery and its aftermath. "I doubt if there is a city in the world," wrote Frederick Law Olmsted after a visit to New Orleans during the 1850s, "where the resident population has been so divided in its origin, or where there is such a variety in the tastes, habits, manners, and moral codes of the citizens." Such diversity, while sometimes impeding commerce, gave "greater scope to the working of individual enterprise, taste, genius, and conscience; so that nowhere are the higher qualities of man ... better developed, or," Olmsted added slyly, "the lower qualities ... less interfered with. It is precisely this hybrid character of New Orleans that has made for many of her most distinctive creations: the jazz of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong; the complex rituals of Mardi Gras; the stories of George Washington Cable and Kate Chopin; the New Orleans paintings of Edgar Degas.
I discovered early on that the materials that make up this book had a logic of their own. My successive attempts to find the "underlying meaning" or the "overarching argument" have proved themselves, one by one, an imposition. New discoveries pushed certain figures to the fore, while others--whom I had once chosen for starring roles--were banished to the wings. The design of the book came to reflect the intricacies of New Orleans society and the continual surprises--at least to me--of echoes and shared destinies.
Many years after his American journey, Edgar Degas heard that his friend the painter Paul Gauguin was looking for an exotic place in the world free of the strictures of modern life. Gauguin was considering the South Sea Islands. Degas advised him to go to New Orleans instead. "But he decided," Degas drily remarked, "that it was too civilized." Gauguin was probably right, as far as his own needs were concerned. But the advice suggests that New Orleans was just the right place for Edgar Degas, when he himself needed a change of scene and direction.
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