Edgar Degas visited the American branch of his family in New Orleans, Louisiana, for five months, from October of 1872 to spring of 1873 (1). Over the course of his visit, Edgar reinvigorated his professional career and managed to participate in two of New Orleans’ most important holidays, All Saints’ Day and Mardi Gras, witness the Federal control of the state as it underwent Reconstruction, and observe the 1872 Louisiana state election and multiple subsequent coup attempts (2).
While in New Orleans, Edgar stayed with his uncle Michel Musson, a businessman involved with cotton and insurance, and many other members of his family in a house on 2306 Esplanade Street, now a bed-and-breakfast known as the Degas House (3).
Edgar’s connections to New Orleans were many. His mother, Célestine Musson Degas, was born into a wealthy white Creole family in New Orleans. Her father, Germain Musson, had immigrated from Haiti to New Orleans and accumulated his wealth there in cotton and silver (4). After Célestine’s mother, Maria Désirée Musson, died, Germain took Célestine and her brother Michel to France to provide them with a European education. While in France, Célestine fell in love with her neighbor Auguste Degas, and the two were married in 1832 (5). Célestine and Auguste remained in France with their children, among them Edgar and his younger brothers René and Achille.
Meanwhile, Michel Musson completed his education in France, then moved back to New Orleans to pursue a career in cotton and insurance. Michel maintained a fluid identity there, often calling himself Michael and speaking fluent French and English, so as to fit into both the white Creole and American sectors of late 19th century New Orleans (6).
By 1870, both René and Achille had moved to New Orleans, calling themselves “De Gas” to falsely suggest an elite status. René married his first cousin Estelle, the daughter of Michel Musson and a Civil War widow, who became one of Edgar’s favorite models. A major reason for Edgar’s 1872 visit to New Orleans was to visit the couple, who were expecting a baby (7). Their child, Jeanne, died of yellow fever in 1878 (8).
Edgar had other motives for traveling to New Orleans. Professionally, he needed to solidify both his own style and his market; personally, he was downcast following his time defending Paris from the Prussian siege as a member of the French National Guard (9). According to Christopher Benfey, “Degas in New Orleans was in transition, carefully weighing his options as he reinvented himself as a painter” (10). New Orleans’ social dynamics, economic situation, and political tensions provided a new environment and a new array of subjects from which Edgar was able to work in a fresh, innovative fashion.
One of Edgar’s more famous New Orleans-period works is A Cotton Office in New Orleans, a combination of genre painting and portraiture that represents his uncle Michel’s office (11).
Edgar described A Cotton Office in a letter to Henri Rouart, a friend from France, saying, “‘In it there are about 15 individuals more or less occupied with a table covered with the precious material and two men, one half leaning and the other half sitting on it, the buyer and the broker, are discussing the sample'” (12). This simplistic explanation neglects much of the content and implications of the painting.
Edgar mentioned New Orleans’ economic obsession with cotton in another letter to Henri, telling him that “‘One lives for cotton and from cotton'” in the city (13). The painting is undoubtedly set in New Orleans, with its central focus on cotton as well as its architectural portraiture of the comfortable office (14). The cotton-obsessed figures of A Cotton Office correspond to real men involved in Michel’s Factors’ and Traders’ Insurance Company. René De Gas, seated, reads the Times-Picayune, while Achille leans against the wall to the far left of the painting. William Bell, Michel Musson’s son-in-law, sits on a stool at the table covered in cotton. To the right of the painting are two of Musson’s business partners, James Prestige and John Livaudais, and around the back are a group of Michel’s French nephews (15).
Michel himself sits in the foreground of A Cotton Office testing a cotton sample. Edgar paints Michel as an old man, dressed in black as if still mourning his recently deceased wife and turned away from the rest of the painting as if isolated or close to death himself (16). At the time of this painting, in the midst of Reconstruction, the Factors’ and Traders’ Insurance Company was struggling. The failures of the corrupt Louisiana government coupled with the banking panic of 1873 created an environment of economic distress, while the firm’s particular issue of losing its business to carpetbagger middlemen more willing to work with black cotton farmers only heightened its decline (17).
The Factors’ and Traders’ Insurance Company published its yearly fiscal reports in the Times-Picayune, displaying its assets, net earned premiums, and net profits. Though the company’s assets increased between 1870 and 1875, its earned premiums and profits dropped off (18). By 1873, the company’s profits dropped by over $112,000, or more than 35%, (19) and by 1875, the company made less than half of the profit it did in 1870, with $140,221.53 versus $315,765.12 (20).
Edgar related this economic distress well in A Cotton Office. Michel’s lack of interest in the activity behind him, the empty chair next to him, and the lounging figures of Achille, René, and the nephews altogether create at atmosphere of stagnation, boredom, and futility perfectly paralleling the company’s actual financial state (21).
Michel came to blame his financial woes largely on the black businessmen and farmers who he believed had stolen and corrupted his business of cotton insurance. He joined the New Orleans White League and presided over its rallies with René De Gas and William Bell, Michel’s son-in-law and treasurer of the League who both lived in the Degas House (22). Thus, the Degas House provided Edgar with a snapshot image of Reconstruction-era New Orleans, a city paralyzed by economic distress, political corruption, and racial tension. Edgar, then, provides us with this same image in A Cotton Office in New Orleans.
(1) Christopher Benfey, Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997), 4.
(2) Ibid., 4, 13–15.
(3) Ibid., 9.
(4) Ibid., 6.
(5) Ibid., 9.
(6) Ibid., 9.
(7) Ibid., 12.
(8) “In Memoriam, JEANNE DEGAS, aged 5 years,” Times-Picayune, 6 October 1878. Accessed at http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=H5CY5FFTMTQ0NzAxODMxMi4xODEyMDI6MToxMzoxNDEuMTY0LjQ5Ljc1&p_action=doc&s_lastnonissuequeryname=3&d_viewref=search&p_queryname=3&p_docnum=18&p_docref=v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-122672C227AD64F8@2407264-1225D02C107D67B0@0-12467B5BFB4B3D09@No%20Headline.
(8) Benfey, Degas in New Orleans, 13.
(9) Ibid., 14.
(10) Ibid., 164.
(11) Ibid., 155.
(12) Ibid., 153.
(13) Ibid., 159.
(14) Ibid., 166.
(15) Ibid., 164-166.
(16) Ibid., 168.
(17) “Fourth Annual Statement of the Factors’ and Traders’ Insurance Company,” Times-Picayune, 30 May 1870. Accessed at http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=D52K55FJMTQ0NzAxOTU2NC43MDk4Mzk6MToxMzoxNDEuMTY0LjQ5Ljc1&p_action=doc&s_lastnonissuequeryname=15&d_viewref=search&p_queryname=15&p_docnum=3&p_docref=v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-1228662191C721D8@2404213-1224E769D981DC88@3-12E2D6D641A3D490@No%20Headline.
(18) “Seventh Annual Statement of the Factors’ and Traders’ Insurance Company,” Times-Picayune, 29 May 1873. Accessed at http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=C53X5CQPMTQ0NzAxOTU2NC43MDk4Mzk6MToxMzoxNDEuMTY0LjQ5Ljc1&p_action=doc&s_lastnonissuequeryname=24&d_viewref=search&p_queryname=24&p_docnum=60&p_docref=v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-1226D4648495DBD0@2405308-1225CD980525D730@4-1246930114DA83B8@No%20Headline.
(19) “Ninth Annual Statement of the Factors’ and Traders’ Insurance Company,” Times-Picayune, 12 June 1875. Accessed at http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=C53X5CQPMTQ0NzAxOTU2NC43MDk4Mzk6MToxMzoxNDEuMTY0LjQ5Ljc1&p_action=doc&s_lastnonissuequeryname=20&d_viewref=search&p_queryname=20&p_docnum=5&p_docref=v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-12271824768FE928@2406052-1225E38F02793D60@5-1240893B29911394@No%20Headline.
(20) Benfey, Degas in New Orleans, 166-167.
(21) Ibid., 15.