Exhausted and disillusioned after fighting in the Franco-Prussian War, young French artist Edgar Degas, like so many young men before and after him, retreated to New Orleans to let off some steam and relax.
In 1872, he settled in at his uncle's rambling mansion at Esplanade Avenue and Tonti Street. During a sojourn of several months in the city, he produced 18 paintings and solidified New Orleans’ claim on yet another creative soul.
A century after his death, the Edgar Degas House operates a thriving business as a bed-and-breakfast and reception hall for weddings.
“But that’s not our main mission,” said David Villarrubia, the former airline pilot who runs the Degas House. “The main mission is to restore and preserve the memory of Degas.”
Tourists from Japan, Australia and Europe arrive by the busload already knowing more about Degas than most Americans. “We’d like to take more proactive steps to educate Americans,” he said.
On Tuesday, the 100th anniversary of Degas’ death in Paris, Villarrubia and local officials unveiled a 4-foot-tall bronze reproduction of Degas’ most famous statue, “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years." The unveiling kicked off a year-long effort to celebrate Degas in conjunction with New Orleans’ tricentennial.
During Edgar Degas’ brief stint in New Orleans, the artist opinion of the city changed drama…
“We want to make it a landmark that people will see and recognize as Degas,” Villarrubia said of the statue. “This is a busy place — they can’t miss it.”
Degas initially cast his “Little Dancer” in wax, modeled after a young dance student with her hands behind her back and her feet in ballet’s “fourth position." Controversially, the wax figure was nude. Degas added a horsehair wig and real clothes and shoes.
Bronze castings made from his original wax figure in the early 20th century are extremely valuable. But the statue acquired by the Degas House is of recent vintage, cast at a foundry in Europe and purchased through an art dealer. It is classified as an “after Degas” rendition, and the unknown sculptor took liberties with Degas’ original design.
“I had some choices,” Villarrubia said of selecting the statue. “This one was already done.”
The "Little Dancer" was removed after Tuesday’s outdoor unveiling ceremony, but it will be repositioned and permanently anchored outside the Degas House in a day or two, Villarrubia said.
Degas’ time in New Orleans was brief but critical to his artistic development. In a letter written from New Orleans in February 1873, he expressed his desire to create art that would be “less complicated and more spontaneous.” That intent resulted in his emergence at the vanguard of the Impressionist movement.
“New Orleans is where his career took a sharp turn,” Villarrubia said.
The 18 works he created in New Orleans included portraits of several relatives. His uncle and two brothers are depicted in “A Cotton Office in New Orleans,” which became the first of his paintings to be purchased by a museum.
“Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas” is the only one of Degas’ 18 New Orleans paintings still in the city. It is part of the New Orleans Museum of Art’s permanent collection, purchased for $200,000 in the mid-1960s with money raised in part by bake sales.
While New Orleans has not necessarily excelled at preserving its musical pioneers’ historic homes, it boasts the only former Degas residence anywhere in the world that is open to the public. The artist’s former abodes in Paris, Villarrubia said, have been either “destroyed or repurposed.”
New Orleans very nearly lost the Degas house, which was built out of sturdy cypress in the early 1850s. In the 1920s, a developer cut the original mansion in half, intending to subdivide the property.
After he took over the Degas House operation in the 1990s, Villarrubia tried unsuccessfully to obtain the permits to rejoin the two halves.
Ultimately, he gave up and built a courtyard in the middle, which turned out to be a godsend: The courtyard is a main selling point for the property’s thriving wedding business.
Joan Prados and Micey Moyer, two of Degas’ great-grandnieces, have for years served as Degas House tour guides. Their great-grandmother, the wife of Degas’ younger brother Rene, was the subject of “Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas.”
Seven days a week, Prados and Moyer lead twice-daily tours of the Degas House property. The ground-floor room along Tonti Street where Degas painted features a reproduction of his studio.
Has Moyer, an artist herself, ever tried painting in her great-grand-uncle’s old room?
“It would be a travesty,” she said, laughing. “I don’t paint like Degas.”