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Nashville Scene History Lesson

New Orleans' Degas exhibit smartly combines art and tourism

By Angela Wibking

JULY 26, 1999:  Though he has come to be regarded as a quintessential Parisian painter, Edgar Degas often called himself "almost a son of Louisiana." This summer, the city of his mother's birth welcomes the artist home again with an exhibition of the works Degas created while living in New Orleans. The show, which runs through the end of August at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), is the centerpiece of FrancofÉte, a statewide celebration of 300 years of French influence in Louisiana.

The only French Impressionist to travel to America, Degas painted some 22 works during his stay here from October 1872 to March 1873. The exhibition includes all but a few of those works, as well as others he painted in France before his visit. The exhibition proceeds seamlessly from paintings to displays of family letters and memorabilia that offer a glimpse into the private life of the artist. Indeed, the exhibition is as much a privileged peek into the Degas family album as it is a display of the great artist's emerging Impressionist style. Degas was 38 when he came to New Orleans, and the first Impressionist exhibit in Paris was almost two years off. Still, it is clear that the artist's style was moving in a particular direction, though he had yet to concentrate his full attention on the Paris ballet dancers and racetrack denizens that would become his most famous subjects.

The exhibition begins by introducing the viewer to the international and often complex Degas family tree, through graphics, vintage photos, and paintings. His father Auguste De Gas (who adopted a spelling of the family's surname meant to denote nobility) was born in Italy to an exiled Frenchman named Rene-Hilaire Degas. The artist's mother, Marie Celestine Musson, was the daughter of a prominent New Orleans French Creole family that had African American cousins who moved in New Orleans' elite society of free blacks. Though Auguste and his bride settled in Paris and raised five children, their ties to New Orleans remained strong, with relations from both sides of the Atlantic exchanging visits.

Edgar Degas had two younger brothers, both of whom married into New Orleans families and made their living in the cotton business there. Brother Achille married a distant relation named Emma Hermann, and brother Rene married first cousin Estelle Musson Balfour, the young widow of a nephew of Jefferson Davis. The latter relationship proved to be significant, as Degas was particularly drawn to the tragic figure of Estelle (who was going blind at the time of the artist's visit) and used her often as a subject for his drawings and paintings.

It was during Rene's trip to Paris in 1872 that Degas was persuaded to return with his younger brother to New Orleans. The siblings sailed on the English paddle steamer Scotia, and one of the most interesting exhibits in the show is the sketchbook Degas kept during the voyage. Degas, who spoke little English, found the trip--and its mostly English passengers--quite dull and passed the time making caricatures of his fellow travelers in his notebook.

In New Orleans, Degas settled down to a routine of visiting the cotton factory office on Carondelet Street where his relatives worked and sketching and painting portraits of family members at their home on Esplanade Avenue. It is these portraits that comprise the heart of the art in the show. Standout paintings include views of his pregnant sister-in-law Estelle, shown pensively arranging exotic flowers in "Portrait of Estelle" and in two other solo portraits. Estelle may also have served as the early model for one of the women in "The Song Rehearsal," though the work was completed after Degas returned to Paris. While virtually all the paintings created during his New Orleans visit are family portraits in one way or another, none was ever presented to the people depicted in the works. Instead, Degas took or sent the paintings back to Paris and kept all but one until his death in 1917.

Frank family letters in the exhibit illuminate another tragedy that would later befall Estelle. In 1878, the family was rocked by the scandal of Rene leaving Estelle and their five children for a married woman who lived nearby (and whose house is depicted in the distance in "Children on a Doorstep"). Rene's actions caused a permanent transatlantic rift in Degas' family, and the artist himself did not speak to his brother for 10 years.

Rene's actions can't help but color the viewer's perception of the show's central work, "A Cotton Office in New Orleans." While the work focuses on the bustling activities of 15 individuals at work in the family cotton offices, the eye is drawn to the central figure of Rene, seated in the midst of the action indolently reading a newspaper. Interestingly, the busy scene is actually one of a business in turmoil: The family concern was on the brink of bankruptcy, and there is reason to believe Rene may actually have been reading of his own declining business fortunes in the paper he held so nonchalantly in his hands.

It is this personal and historical context, as much as the quality of the paintings, that makes the Degas show so deeply rewarding. Family secrets aside, however, the paintings offer an exquisite visual experience that makes taking a trip to New Orleans well worthwhile.

The city celebrates Degas

Of course, no other city could provide quite the context for this show as New Orleans (though the exhibit will also travel to Copenhagen). The New Orleans Museum of Art stands in City Park, just a few blocks from the Pitot House, home of the artist's maternal grandmother, and not far from the house in which Degas lived during his New Orleans stay. Both homes are open to the public.

In fact, visitors in search of total immersion into the world of Degas can stay at the family's onetime home on Esplanade or eat a meal at the Caf Degas a few blocks away. But this neighborhood certainly isn't the only place one can enter into the 19th-century world of Degas, for New Orleans is a city where the past is present at every turn. It's also a city that knows how to capitalize on events like the Degas show with related tours, shows, and hotel packages.

Several hotels offer Degas packages that include exhibition tickets and special room rates in a wide variety of price ranges. For a splurge that's still a deal, the Windsor Court Hotel's Degas packages are especially notable. At this AAA 5-Diamond high-rise hotel in the central business district, a couple can book a full suite for two nights and have dinner at the Grill Room (one of the city's top restaurants where dinner for two can easily top $200) for $480. Night packages for two with Degas tickets, an exhibit catalogue, and the Windsor Court's famous afternoon tea start at $500. The hotel is a few blocks from the French Quarter and the streetcar line, and it boasts a secluded, full-size outdoor pool where attendants bring you citrus-flavored ice water, and the sun block and fresh fruit are on the house. Certainly Degas never had it this good. Call (800) 262-2662 for more information, or visit the Web site at http://www.windsorcourthotel.com.

Restaurants have jumped on the Degas bandwagon too. For $32, we sampled one of the special Degas menus at the Upperline Restaurant that included a trio of soups, a succulent braised lamb shank with white beans, and a luscious lemon tart with verbena sorbet. The experience was heightened by the New Orleans artists' paintings that adorn the walls. Particularly whimsical is a version of Degas' famous "Absinthe Drinker," painted by Gene Rogas with the witty New Orleans addition of a King Cake on the bistro table.

For an even more total experience, attend the one-man Degas show at the Hermann-Grima Home (home of Emma Hermann, wife of Degas' brother Achille), and then dine at Arnaud's, Galatoire's, or the Gumbo Shop on a set menu. Arnaud's is one of the oldest of the old-line Creole restaurants in the French Quarter, and it's easy to imagine Degas himself dining here amidst the vintage black-and-white tiled floors, stamped tin ceilings, and bistro-style wooden chairs and white-linen covered tables.

Even breakfast at Brennan's on Royal Street, a New Orleans tradition of mythic proportions, has a Degas connection in that Degas' great-grandfather Don Vincente Rillieux built the 205-year-old structure. Not to be missed here are any dishes with crabmeat, the onion soup, the beef hash, the strawberry crepes, and, of course, the Bananas Foster, which is flamed tableside with an attention-getting "whoosh."

Special events presented in conjunction with the Degas show include a fascinating exhibit at the Historic New Orleans Collection called "The Fabric of History: The Cotton Industry in New Orleans"; an exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum featuring works of Louisiana artists who painted during the time of Degas' stay in New Orleans; and French history-focused tours of the City Park Botanical Gardens and Longue Vue House and Gardens.

All these events have contributed to the Degas exhibit's economic impact on the city. According to Annie Williams, NOMA's public relations director, attendance for the Degas show is on track to top 200,000 by the end of its four-month run, with an economic impact of around $20 million. By contrast, the "Impressions of Normandy" show at the Tennessee State Museum had 45,000 visitors during its five-month run, during which there were few related events or packages offered by members of the local tourism community.

Granted, the Normandy show was less topical, but the fact remains there's a lesson to be learned here--especially at a time when Nashville's tourist dollars are ebbing. New Orleans' success with the Degas exhibit is tangible proof of what can happen when arts and tourism work together. It's an example that one hopes the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, other Nashville museums, and the tourism community as a whole will study closely as they plan for the next century.

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