The Louisiana Purchase
Buying the New Orleans house that Edgar Degas lived in is one way to establish a museum. Teresa Levonian Cole hears how the artist left a lasting impression
THE YEAR WAS 1962 and James B Byrnes, the new director of the Isaac Delgado Museum in New Orleans, had a problem: how to seduce the public from the famous Quartier Français to his museum (since renamed the New Orleans Museum of Art, or NOMA) in City Park, 3.5 miles to the north-west. He started researching the most famous artist associated with the city, Edgar Degas, and struck lucky. In 1964, the portrait of Estelle de Gas (née Musson), Edgar’s beloved first cousin and sister-in-law, whom he had painted in 1872 during his stay, came up for sale through EV Thaw in New York. The price was $190,000.
Byrnes embarked on an awareness and fund-raising campaign entitled ‘Bring Estelle Home’, dragooning local dignitaries into service and organising lunches where patrons splashed out $5,000 for a sandwich. Both the painting and publicity were successfully secured, and the portrait of Estelle now hangs in NOMA — the only one of Degas’s 22 New Orleans works to be found in the city.
But Jim Byrnes’s research during this period unearthed something else, and one day in 1975, a brown plaque appeared outside a run-down building riddled with termites on New Orleans’ elegant Esplanade Avenue. ‘Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas,’ it reads. ‘French “Impressionist” master whose mother and grandmother were born in New Orleans. Painted many famous subjects on a visit here in 1872-1873 at Musson Home on Esplanade.’
Today, the house at No. 2306 — made of cypress slats, with a façade of pillars and iron balconies — is the only home of Degas, anywhere in the world, to be open to the public. It’s no longer run-down, but painstakingly restored to something of its former splendour, and the tricolour flag fluttering from the historic house museum is triply redolent of New Orleans’ French foundation, the city’s aristocratic Creole legacy and of Degas himself.
I was intrigued. Despite the voluminous literature on Degas, little is known about the brief but influential five-month period the artist spent in New Orleans, staying with his two brothers and the family of his maternal uncle, Michel Musson. Yet Degas was the only major French Impressionist to have worked in North America, and the artist himself was aware of the pivotal nature of his stay.
It was one of those long, rainy afternoons in New Orleans so beloved of the languorous Blanche Dubois when I arrived at Degas’ House. David Villarrubia, a retired airline pilot who is the museum’s founder and director, greeted me. ‘The house was in terrible condition when it came up for sale in 1993,’ he tells me. ‘The vendor did not even know who Degas was. I decided to try to save it for the city, and offered to buy it on the spot.’
Villarrubia approached experts in the field and set about learning more. Many changes had been made over the years, notably by Madame Picard, who, in 1880, converted the house into a girls’ finishing school, as it remained for 40 years. Using the 1860 floor plans by Adrien Persac, Villarrubia began recreating, as far as possible, the original layout, excavating layers of wallpaper to find the first paint colours and furnishing rooms as they might have been. The Edgar Degas House opened in 1996, incorporating a B&B to help finance research, restoration and running costs, and later won endorsement from the French Ministry of Culture and French Heritage Society.
‘There are still differences from the house Degas would have known,’ says Villarrubia. ‘Madame Picard, for example, altered the original Greek Revival façade to this more fashionable Italianate one.’ The most dramatic change occurred in the 1920s, when the house was split in two, one section physically moved 20 yards away. ‘We only discovered in 1995 that this building had been part of the original house,’ says Villarrubia. ‘A nonagenarian neighbour remembered the house being divided, confirming our own research.’ So Villarrubia bought that as well, dubbing it ‘Degas Two’.
It is in Degas Two that the painter’s makeshift bedroom-cum-studio may be seen. With its original chocolate brown walls, it has been furnished with an antique French bed, travelling trunk and easel, and invested with the artist’s spirit. Degas was 38 when, at the instigation of his younger brother René, he arrived in New Orleans, exhausted from his experiences in the National Guard during the 1870 Siege of Paris. Not yet famous and already suffering from eye problems (he had discovered, when trying to fire a rifle, that his right eye was almost useless), Degas was experiencing what might now be called post-traumatic stress and a midlife crisis which saw him reassess himself as an artist.
His lengthy letters, in which he frequently refers to ‘the brilliant light at which my eyes complain’, remain the most revealing testimony of this period. Degas’ work would take place indoors. Manet, he laments, would have made much better use of the exotica of New Orleans, its bright colours, the steamboats, the French Market, and the stark contrast of ‘black women of all shades, holding little white children, so very white, in their arms’.
Degas’ portrait of his cousin Estelle Musson de Gas (1872)
IF DEGAS WAS undergoing a personal crisis, the New Orleans of the Reconstruction period, following the fall of the city to the Union troops early in the Civil War, was not faring much better. The elite social and economic status of the Creole community — ‘Creole’ in New Orleans relating to the descendants of the original French and Spanish settlers — was being further challenged. Michel Musson’s own father, Edgar’s grandfather, a wealthy sugar planter on Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), had fled the revolution of Toussaint-Louverture to settle in New Orleans and sent his children for education in France. Now Michel, a well-to-do Creole cotton broker and postmaster of New Orleans, was experiencing financial difficulties due largely to his investment in Confederate war bonds. Degas arrived to find his uncle’s cotton business on the brink of bankruptcy.
The despondency of a society in decline is evident in the portraits of his two brothers seen among the fifteen or so figures in their uncle’s cotton buyers’ office — a naturalistic painting Degas had hoped to sell to Manchester cotton merchants, and which turned out to be the only painting he sold to a museum during his lifetime. But it is another painting of this subject, executed a few months later, that filled Degas with new resolve: a landmark that heralded his more mature Impressionist style. ‘Less complicated’ is how Degas describes the style of The Cotton Merchants of 1873, ‘and more spontaneous, better art.’ In 1874, the year following his return to Paris, Degas took part in what the critics dubbed the First Impressionist Exhibition.
In New Orleans, meantime, Degas’ condition kept him indoors. ‘My eyes are so greatly in need of care that I scarcely take any risks with them at all. A few family portraits will be the sum total of my efforts,’ he complains to Rouart. The result was in fact numerous paintings of his cousins Desirée, Mathilde and Estelle, with their children. One of these, Children on a Doorstep, painted from inside the house looking out through the back door, depicts the house of the Mussons’ friends and neighbours, the Oliviers, in the background — a view which, incidentally, had helped James Byrnes identify the Musson property.
On Degas’ death, it was found that he had kept all the family portraits he had painted in New Orleans and had bequeathed half his estate to René, his estranged brother. A French judge ruled that Gaston and Odile, René’s children, should receive ten bronze sculptures, cast after Degas’s death. ‘My parents remember playing with these sculptures as children, and irreverent guests would use them as ashtrays,’ says Margot Musson, the great-grand-niece of Edgar Degas and direct descendent of Estelle and René, who guided me through the house and the complexities of the family history. ‘Sadly, they were all sold in 1950.’
It may be reproductions that grace the walls of the Degas House today — along with family photographs and Degas monotypes collected by Villarrubia — but visitors will most likely be treated to a journey back in time with one of three authentic scions of the Musson-Degas clan acting as Cicerone. Surprisingly, this little gem receives only 25 visitors a day. ‘We are located a twenty-minute walk from the French Quarter, and equidistant from NOMA, and we face the same problem of attracting visitors as the late Jim Byrnes,’ says Villarrubia with a laugh. Does anyone, by chance, know of a Musson portrait by Degas coming up for sale?
Degas picture purchased through public subscription, 65.1