Rightly or not-quite-accurately, New Orleans has long claimed Edgar Degas as one of its own.
Much has been made of the 19th-century French painter’s Creole relatives in the United States; his mother’s family, the Mussons, had lived in the Crescent City since emigrating from Haiti in 1810.
Degas famously made an extended visit to that family in their home on Esplanade Avenue over the winter of 1872-73, during which he painted at least one minor masterpiece, “A Cotton Office in New Orleans,” now in the collection of the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Pau, France. (It would be the only painting Degas sold to a museum in his lifetime.)
Fortunately, not all of the work Degas created during his stay in New Orleans left the country. Less celebrated than “A Cotton Office,” but perhaps more engaging to modern sensibilities, is his sensitive and haunting portrait of his half-blind cousin and sister-in-law Estelle Musson Degas. It’s now in the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art, just blocks away from where it was painted.
Degas, of course, would go on to be regarded as one of the founders of impressionism — a term he is said to have loathed — and one of the towering figures of early modern art.
But for some New Orleanians, he’s first and foremost a kind of quasi-native son. The Mussons’ home is now a bed-and-breakfast that bears the artist’s name, as does a popular French-inflected restaurant nearby.
Now, coming fast on the satin-slipper-clad heels of an exhibition of Degas’ “Little Dancer” sculpture, which recently closed at the New Orleans Museum of Art, a new show at the Newcomb Art Gallery focuses attention on some lesser-known works by the artist and his circle.
“Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist” contains drawings, prints, sculpture and photographs — taken from the holdings of a single private collection — brought together, in the words of the show’s press materials, to “illuminate the background and personality of Degas the individual, as well as to present his genius as an artist.”
Along with examples of the subject matter most viewers will expect to see in a Degas exhibition — including scenes of horse racing and the ballet, two of the artist’s favorite motifs — the show also includes three rare self-portraits as well as portraits of some of his family members and fellow artists. An etching of Degas’ fellow impressionist Mary Cassat, captured surreptitiously through a doorway inspecting a wall of paintings in a gallery at the Louvre, is representative of the “insider’s look” at Degas’ world.
Also included in the exhibition is work by several of Degas’ contemporaries including Cassat, Paul Cézanne and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the better to give an idea of the kind of artistic milieu in which he created.
It’s a rare opportunity for audiences to acquaint themselves with a body of Degas’ work that hasn’t been widely exhibited — and provides a more intimate look at an artist many of us assumed we knew pretty intimately already.