Degas In New Orleans

Celestine Musson, the mother of the great French impressionist painter Edgar Degas, was born in New Orleans. And thereby hangs a tale. In France Celestine married a banker, Auguste De Gas (he favored the pseudo-aristocratic spelling of his last name), and bore him three sons: Edgar and his two younger brothers, Rene and Achille. By 1870, when Edgar was just beginning to find his style as an artist, Rene and Achille had moved to New Orleans where, they believed, "men with nerve" could make fortunes in the cotton business. Rene encouraged Degas to come visit him. In October 1872, with Paris still recovering from the German occupation during the Franco-Prussian War, Degas set out for America.

What he painted during his five-month visit is the subject of a superb little exhibition, "Degas and New Orleans," at the New Orleans Museum of Art. His sister-in-law Estelle Musson, who was going blind, became his favorite subject. Troubled by his own weakened eyesight, he painted her again and again, twice brilliantly: in the breathtakingly austere and somber "Estelle Musson Balfour" and in the poignantly colorful "Portrait of Estelle," where she is captured sightlessly arranging flowers.

Although Degas never found a rhythm in New Orleans--the city's complex racial mix, climate and costumes discombobulated him as much as they fascinated him--his art didn't suffer at all. Most of the work here shows Degas's piercing originality: adroitly asymmetrical compositions, beautifully realized human gestures and a combination of finished and deliberately unfinished passages of paint. There's one masterpiece that, should you miss the show, you'll have to travel to Pau, France, to see: "A Cotton Office in New Orleans." It's one of the finest multiple portraits-on-the-move ever done, a kind of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch" writ small and less melodramatically. That's brother Rene near the center, leaning back in his chair, reading The Daily Picayune.

It's ironic that Degas's painting catches the moment at which the cotton office went bust. But it's positively tragic that blind Estelle was deserted by Rene in 1878, for a neighbor lady whose name was--speaking of irony--America. Estelle lived on until 1909 and was remembered for her unflagging spirit and cheerful disposition. Some exhibitions look gorgeous, some tell wonderful stories. This show does both.

Degas and New Orleans-New Orleans Museum of Art. Through Aug. 29.