Who Was Edgar Degas? The Musical ‘Degas in New Orleans’ Reveals Another Side of the Painter

Degas in a Green Jacket, Edgar Degas. Photo taken courtesy of the Wiki Art site.

Degas in a Green Jacket, Edgar Degas. Photo taken courtesy of the Wiki Art site.

Much of the background (setting 1872, New Orleans) ,of the Musical, Degas in New Orleans written by Rosary O’Neill, music composed by David Temple, is gathered from biographies written about Edgar Degas.

The World Premiere of Degas in New Orleans produced and directed by Deborah Temple with the Red Hook Performing Arts Club is being presented at The Bard Fisher Center. The dates are Thursday, December 18th and Friday, December 19th at 7:00 pm. It is being presented at Red Hook Central School District on Saturday, December 20th at 7:00 pm and Sunday, December 21st at 3:00 pm.

About Edgar Degas, the Background for Degas in New Orleans

Edgar Degas (1834-1917) has been regarded as a  founder of Impressionism because he was a key organizer of exhibitions of those painters who designated themselves as spontaneous and painted en plein air (in the open air). However, he disliked the categorization and preferred to be noted as a realist. He commented, “What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing.” (Armstrong, 1991, p. 22) His scenes of Parisian life, his experiments with form and color and his friendship with several key Impressionist artists, for example,  Mary Cassatt and Édouard Manet,  connect him intimately to the Impressionist movement (Roskill 1983, p.33), even if he denied it himself.

Pink Dancers, Before the Ballet, Edgar Degas (1884). Wiki site.

Pink Dancers, Before the Ballet, Edgar Degas (1884). Wiki Art site.

The eldest son of a wealthy banking family, Edgar’s artistic talent was recognized early by his father. Degas wanted to improve his artistic skill, so in his youth, as was done in Paris, he spent time copying the Italian masterpieces in the Louvre. Later, Edgar traveled to Italy in search of copying the greats: Michelangelo, Titian, and other Renaissance painters, visiting various churches to see the works on display. Not stuck in the past, Degas enjoyed studying modern artistic techniques, including photography and engraving. In searching about for his life’s work, he studied law to help with the family business as most sons did. But he decided against it and ended his law career in 1855 to pursue his early love of painting, sketching and drawing.

Degas had family in the US, his mom’s family, the Mussons. It was his Uncle Michel Musson and his daughters who lived in New Orleans on Esplanade Avenue in what is today known as “The Degas House.” After the Civil War broke out, and the conflict increased in intensity, the Musson sisters, Edgar’s cousins, were sent to France which is where Edgar first became acquainted with them. The youngest cousin, Estelle (Tell), lost her first husband during the War, while pregnant with their daughter.  Despite Edgar’s affections for Tell, it was Edgar’s youngest brother, René who married her and took her back to live in New Orleans. René amassed tremendous debts, ruined the business and eventually had to be bailed out by Degas, after Degas returned from his stay in New Orleans. It is his trip to New Orleans to visit his brother and the family when he discovers the family crisis and his brother’s negligence to the business and his own family.

Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas, Edgar Degas (1872). Courtesy of the NOMA site.

Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas, Edgar Degas (1872). Courtesy of the NOMA site.

Composer David Temple’s Observations Related to the Musical World Primere ‘Degas in New Orleans’

Degas joined the National Guard to fight for France during the Franco-Prussian War. During rifle training, his eyesight was found to be defective. And it was on his subsequent visit to New Orleans that he realized his right eye was permanently damaged: “What lovely things I could have done …if the bright daylight were less unbearable for me.  To go to Louisiana to open one’s eyes, I cannot do that.  And yet I kept them sufficiently half open to see my fill.”  In years to follow, he lost his ability to read and to identify colors, and he worked more and more in sculpture, a more tactile medium.  By 1891, he would write, “Ah! Sight! Sight! Sight!… the difficulty of seeing makes me feel numb.”

Edgar’s own failing eyesight most probably increased his empathy and affection for Tell who he discovered had gone blind after she returned to New Orleans with René. Edgar expressed his feelings in a letter to a friend: “My poor Estelle, Rene’s wife, is blind as you know.  She bears it in an incomparable manner; she needs scarcely any help about the house.  She remembers the rooms and the position of the furniture and hardly ever bumps into anything.  And there is no hope!”

Our attempt in this production is to elicit the artistic — and amorous — affections of the Musson – Degas clan, and to have a window into this beautiful yet tragic connection of the two who are losing their sight — yet perhaps truly “see” more clearly than anyone else — has been an exciting journey.  We so hope our work reaches the passion and artistic vision of each audience member.
Rosary O'Neill with Degas' The Dancer in Green exhibited at NOMA (New Orleans). Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Playwright Rosary O’Neill with Degas’ The Dancer in Green exhibited at NOMA (New Orleans). Photo by Carole Di Tosti

PERFORMANCES AT BARD FISHER CENTER BLACK-BOX THEATER

Tickets are selling fast. But you can call Bard Fisher Center’s Ticket Office to purchase tickets.

WHEN:  THURSDAY, December 18 and FRIDAY, December 19 at 7:00 p.m.

Tickets are $10.00/$8.00 students and seniors available in advance for Thursday and Friday night performances at the Fisher Center Box Office, 845-758-7900/6822 and sold at the door. Click on the dates (December 18, December 19) in the calendar for tickets.

Deborah and David Temple, director and composer of 'Degas in New Orleans.' Photo courtesy of the Temples.

Deborah and David Temple, director and composer of ‘Degas in New Orleans.’ Photo courtesy of the Temples.

PERFORMANCES AT RED HOOK CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL

WHEN:  SATURDAY, December 20 at 7:00 p.m. and SUNDAY, December 21 at 3:00 p.m. at Red Hook Central High School.

Tickets are $10.00/$8.00 students and seniors. Tickets for the Saturday and Sunday performances will be available at the door at Red Hook High School.

Sources

Armstrong, Carol (1991). Odd Man Out: Readings of the Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas. Chicago and London:      University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-02695-7
Roskill, Mark W. (1983). “Edgar Degas.” Collier’s Encyclopedia.
David Temple co-wrote the article.

Posted on December 16, 2014, in Regional Theatre and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I love all of the biographical information you have shared in this post. It makes me want to see the musical all the more! Happy New Year Carole!

  2. Thanks, Renee. That is so sweet. His was a very interesting life; didn’t know until recently he had family in NOLA. Have a lovely New Year. Thanks for your support. Supporting you right back.

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