The first painting Edgar Degas sold to a museum did not portray underage ballerinas or a domestic tableau but the artist’s relatives at work in a cotton brokers’ office—in New Orleans, Louisiana. Until January 16, 2017, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts has mounted a show, “Degas: A New Vision,” that includes A Cotton Office in New Orleans and other works the Impressionist created on a Crescent City visit in 1872-73.
In Cotton Office, the foreground figure is top-hatted broker Michael Musson, the artist’s uncle, testing a fiber sample between thumb and forefinger beside a pile of cotton. Degas’s brother Rene is seated reading a newspaper; cousin Achille lounges against a window, observing as a broker and buyer examine samples. The men at right are working on the account books.
At the time, the nation’s fourth largest city dripped with wealth. Degas’ New Orleans-born mother, Celestine Musson, was the daughter of a wealthy man who had arrived in that city in 1810 from Haiti. Celestine married a Parisian; their son was born in France in 1831.
Edgar Degas was close with his American relatives, and in October 1872, came to live with them during a financial crisis. Degas, 39, stayed through March 1873, painting 18 canvases, including Cotton Office, The Pedicure, Courtyard of a House, and The Song Rehearsal—all on view in Houston (mfah.org).
Before his family’s fortunes soured, Degas had aspired to paint historical tableaus, but loss of the Degas banking wealth required he make a living from art. In New Orleans, he began that transition, but not without noting his difficult new circumstances.
“One does nothing here, it lies in the climate, nothing but cotton, one lives for cotton and from cotton. The light is so strong that I have not yet been able to do anything on the river,” Degas wrote. “My eyes are so greatly in need of care that I scarcely take any risk with them at all. A few family portraits will be the sum total of all my efforts.”
The house where Degas and his American relatives lived, near the French Quarter, is now a bed and breakfast (degashouse.com). For a detail of the cotton office scene in pastel, visit: harvardartmuseums.org/collections/object/299832?position=11