Ghosts of old New Orleans make their presence felt at the haunting, if not haunted, Degas House. Remnants of the lives of residents long dead, the portraits of its one-time occupants—painted by Edgar Degas, one of New Orleans’ most famous visitors—hang on the walls, stand on easels and watch as you wander through the restored home on Esplanade Avenue.
The house was once home to the New Orleans branch of French artist Degas’ family, the Mussons, one of the most well regarded of New Orleans’ Creole families. (While “Creole” has taken on many meanings, here it refers to descendants of French or Spanish colonial subjects born in the Americas.)
Degas’ mother, Célestine Musson, and her brother Michel were born in New Orleans but were sent to France to be educated when young. Célestine married Auguste De Gas and remained in France, while Michel returned to New Orleans after completing his studies. (Auguste changed their name from Degas to De Gas, but Edgar re-adopted “Degas” later in life).
Michel became a very wealthy cotton and silver merchant in the 1820s. As a businessman, he had dealt favorably with both the old Creole guard and the American businessmen who had begun arriving in the city after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. He had even built a grand home in the Garden District, or, as it was known, “the American Sector,” one of the first Creoles to do so.
During the Yankee occupation of New Orleans in the Civil War, Michel sent his wife, Odile, and daughters Désirée and Estelle to France, where they got to know their cousin Edgar and his brothers René and Achille.
While Edgar completed some portraits of his aunt and cousins during their time in France, his brother René was falling in love with Estelle. René writes at one point, “She inspires so much sympathy, she has so much sweetness in her sadness that she made us all become attached to her in an instant.” He and Achille leave France to find their fortunes in Louisiana once the war is over, and, in a move that would be shocking today but wasn’t uncommon then, René and Estelle become husband and wife.
René and Achille formed their own import/export firm in New Orleans and joined Michel’s cotton factoring operation. Factors were commissioned agents working in the city who handled the business end of buying, selling and exporting cotton for the rural growers and plantation owners who were spread throughout the region.
Michel’s fortunes went into steady decline after the war. He had gone “all in” for the South and invested heavily in Confederate war bonds, which, of course, were worthless after the war. He sold his Garden District home and moved the family into the rented mansion on Esplanade in 1869.
Rendered by architectural artist Adrian Persac shortly after it was built in 1858, the home on Esplanade Avenue appears as a large, stately, well-landscaped mansion occupying the river-side end of the block, taking up, as the formal description states, “two fine lots of ground.” A wing is attached to its side; there are a couple of detached buildings alongside the property and a pigeonnier in the garden to the rear of the house.
The state of the Musson family fortune made life in the home more like a bunkhouse than a mansion. Upwards of 16 people lived there, at least six of them energetic kids, with the parlors partitioned off and serving as bedrooms for the unmarried adults; the married couples and children were in the bedrooms upstairs.
“Louisiana must be respected by all her children … and I am almost one of them.”
René Degas traveled to France in 1872 to buy costumes for the next year’s Comus Mardi Gras proceedings. (The secretive organization’s 1873 ball and procession became perhaps the most famous of all time, with the theme “Darwin’s Origin of Species” providing cover for the satiric skewering of the Union conquerors, carpetbaggers and reconstructionists who ruled Louisiana at the time.) His mission on behalf of the Mistick Krewe completed, René convinced Edgar to come back with him to New Orleans for a visit.
While his works now fetch millions of dollars on the open market, Degas was struggling for recognition in the formal salons of Paris, and, like the Mussons, he was at a difficult point in his life when he came to visit in the fall of 1872.
David Villarrubia, who has owned the Degas House since 1993 and has endeavored to restore it to its Creole roots, has spent years researching Degas’ life. He explains, “Degas is 38, just out of the Franco-Prussian War and just got kicked to the curb by his girlfriend. He’s hurting, he’s down, he lost his best friend in battle and he realizes he’s going blind—that’s a hell of a thing for a painter who is not really famous. He’s a little bit popular in Paris, but he’s not the Degas we’ve come to know.”
Degas’ eyes gave him fits in New Orleans. While fascinated with the scenery and diversity of possible subjects on the riverfront and in and around the market’s stalls, the glare hurt his eyes too much for him to spend enough time to make any drawings.
“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. 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,” Degas writes.
Despite his complaints, Villarrubia notes, “New Orleans was a very pivotal point in time for his art. He does re-group here. He’s with family. His letters explain a tremendous amount of what he was going through when he arrives here. He hadn’t been painting, so he starts painting again.”
Degas does get to paint some family portraits and manages to incorporate life’s great topic, cotton, into a couple of paintings that will make him famous. “What he accomplishes while he’s here is pretty amazing,” says Villarrubia. Regarded as one of Degas’ most cherished masterworks is an unlikely family portrait that appears to be an observational picture of some men at work in an office. “Portraits in an Office at the New Orleans Cotton Exchange—which was done on Factor’s Row, not the Cotton Exchange—is 14 people, and they’re recognizable. You could hold a photograph up and we know who they were,” says Villarrubia. “His brothers René and Achille, cousin-in-law William Bell, Oscar Chopin and his uncle’s business partners, all included in this fantastic painting of his uncle’s cotton office, which is going defunct.”
Degas’ painting Children on a Doorstep depicts several of Degas’ young cousins and nieces and nephews, along with one of the household’s nurses, framed in a doorway leading out to the back garden, the family dog in the garden and a neighbor’s home in the background.
There are 18 paintings in all attributed to Degas’ time in New Orleans. His cousins Estelle and Mathilde are certainly subjects. He didn’t always identify his subjects or state whether their depictions were to be portraiture or used as models to which he applied his own spin on a figurative work. It’s been the job of experts to speculate who may or may not be the person depicted in some of his New Orleans portraits. While some are definitely of Estelle, and at least one definitely Mathilde, there is no consensus whether unmarried cousin Désirée is in any of the paintings.
“Ah! my friend, how I have also wept—even though at my age, and given how much I have already wept, the stream is nearly dried up.”
—letter from Michel Musson to Edgar Degas, 1883.
Michel Musson, Degas’ uncle and paterfamilias of the New Orleans branch of the family, continued to suffer misfortune after misfortune in the years after Edgar returned to Paris in 1873.
Musson corresponded with Edgar for years, with no success, in an attempt to have him send to New Orleans the portrait of his daughter Mathilde, probably the painting now known as Woman Seated Near a Balcony. (The piece is now in the collection of the Ordrupgaard Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, as is Children on a Doorstep.)
In 1878, Edgar’s brother, René, had an affair and then ran off with America Olivier. She was the children’s music teacher and had been hired to read to Estelle, who was by then blind. The Oliviers were close friends of the family. In a legacy made permanent through Edgar’s art, America Olivier had also been the lady of the house that is seen in the background of his painting Children on a Doorstep.
“America was married, they took her children with them and got ‘quickie’ divorces and ‘quickie’ married, and they were off to France. He had left Estelle blind, with six children, so nobody was very happy with him,” says Joan Prados, a tour guide at the Degas House and a descendant of Estelle Musson and René Degas. One of their children was Prados’ grandfather, Gaston Degas, who was the godson of the Oliviers. In the coming years, four of Estelle’s children with René died. Michel adopted the two surviving children, Gaston and Odile, replacing the now-despised Degas name with his own.
By the time Michel Musson died in 1885, he had also seen the death of his daughter Mathilde, Josephine Balfour (Estelle’s daughter from her first marriage) and his brother, Henri.
The Degas family was not without difficulties. In France, Degas’ father dies, leaving him to deal with the family’s bank that had failed, in no small part, due to investments in the Confederacy made at the behest of Michel. It didn’t help that René had lost thousands of dollars of the bank’s money in a series of unsuccessful business dealings prior to his abandoning Estelle for America Olivier.
“It took Degas about 10 years to pay off the bank’s debt, and he did it by painting ballet pictures, for the most part,” Prados says. “That’s one reason he became known as a painter of artists and dancers over anything else. They say about half of his work was dancers, so he did a lot of other things people don’t know him for.”
Villarrubia grew up in the neighborhood and was familiar with the home on Esplanade and its historic marker, which had been placed in the ’70s, but didn’t know a whole lot more. As an airline pilot, he had spent time in Europe enjoying art museums, including the Monet House in Giverny, France. In 1993, he took a break from flying due to illness in his family. Villarrubia recalls that one day, “I passed the house and it had a ‘For Sale by Owner’ sign. I called a friend of mine who was in real estate to come see the house with me.
“I was curious about where Degas had painted. Having traveled a lot in Europe, I knew that if this were in Europe, it would be a museum house. So we came through the house, and the owner didn’t know anything about Degas, except to say the name on the marker was ‘Dee-gas,’ who’s actually in the encyclopedia.
“The house was in terrible shape. It had been remodeled with drop ceilings added, and there was termite damage throughout. “The architectural detailing was there; it was just hidden. The ceilings had been lowered; they were acoustical tile and really had not been done well,” Villarrubia remembers. Concerned that the home was to be featured in the next day’s real estate section of the paper, he asked his friend to make an offer on the house right away.
“We got a contract late that night and started this adventure.” Villarrubia says he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with it; he just knew that he didn’t want the property to keep going in the direction it had been going. It was a favorable price because the owners were looking to dump it, not knowing exactly what they had. He didn’t necessarily intend to keep and restore the house himself, just to preserve it until the right person came along. “I didn’t think it would be my adventure. I thought the museum would be interested, or the City of New Orleans, but nobody really understood.”
His adventure, it turns out, involved even more research about the painter and his family, a quest to solve an architectural mystery and a lot of hard work.
What researchers believed was that the house with the historical marker in front of it (the second house from the corner of N. Tonti and Esplanade) had an additional wing during Degas’ time that had since been demolished. Villarrubia had a revelation of sorts when he went to talk to his neighbor across the street. She told him, “Well, they write their books and their newspaper articles about the house, but they never ask for my perspective.”
“I was patronizing her,” Villarrubia says, “thinking she was probably lonely, so I asked, ‘What is your perspective?’ She said to get up on the stoop and she would show me. I got up there, she turned me around and faced me towards house on the corner and the one with the marker, and she said, ‘Look at the roof lines. That wing wasn’t destroyed, it was just moved.’”
He remembers, “It hit me like a train, because I could see it. The guillotine windows were still in the front behind glass jalousies and yellow brick that had been used to modernize the building.”
Villarrubia dug deep into the property’s history and found that after the Mussons moved out in 1880, the home became the Markey-Picard Institute for Girls, a young ladies’ finishing school, until 1917, when Madame Picard died. Her succession wasn’t complete, he says, until 1920, when her heirs sold it to a developer, who split the property into six different lots of ground.
“The dividing line for lots one and two went through the parlor. So they simply moved it and re-did it as a more modern house. They got rid of the high doorways and enclosed the parlor into several apartments. It became a six-plex.” The house was cut in two at the left side of the doorway in the center of the house and both sides moved to the centers of their newly defined lots. The wing that had been on the side was moved and attached to the rear of the main section.
Villarrubia has restored the house that was traditionally believed to be the Degas House into an elegant and formal space in a manner as close as possible to its appearance during Degas’ visit. The bedrooms upstairs have been converted into charming rooms and suites that form part of the home’s latest incarnation—it is now a bed and breakfast.
He acquired the corner property as well, which had undergone several additions and modernized touches over the years, rendering it, as he explained earlier, almost unrecognizable as part of the same home. “It’s the second project we’ve taken on, never to be as formal as the other. We don’t want to Disney-fy this one and make them matching twins. We use this more for the offices of our non-profit and for the tours. People who come for tours see this more as the museum and classroom side, and over there it’s more elegant and finished.”
Joan Prados points out that the door itself where the children were standing in Children on a Doorstep is now part of the wing that had been added to the main house when the property was divided. It still looks out to the back courtyard, which, at the time it was painted, was a garden that extended completely across the block to the next street. The home in the background was where the Mussons’ close friends, the Oliviers, lived. It still stands on N. Tonti; today, however, there are several other houses between it and the Degas House.
Ghosts of Residents Past
Villarrubia says the property is not an art museum and he doesn’t ever intend it to be one. It is home, however, to quality reproductions of the paintings attributed to Degas during his time spent there. He says, “Our focus is history. The reproductions are there as a backdrop to the history and the stories that we tell. You get a sense of how beautiful these paintings are without traveling the rest of the world; they’re in the context of where they were actually painted.”
Traces remain, like the doorway where the children once stood and Degas painted them. In the background of Mathilde’s portrait on the balcony is the sketchy shadow—an impression—of the iron railing that still rings the balcony today. A print of a painting of a pregnant Estelle, sitting on a daybed, her blind eyes fixed on nothing, stands on an easel under the main stairway. A print of The Song Rehearsal, a painting that depicts a man resembling his brother René at a piano with two ladies singing, hangs in the front parlor. “The picture,” Prados says, “was done in this room. It doesn’t have all the features of the room, but Degas says, ‘painting is not copying.’ You have René playing piano. Degas put the pocket doors on a different side, and then he changes it into a single door.”
A reproduction of the portrait of Estelle, the largest of his New Orleans works, hangs over the fireplace in the center room. Depicting a pregnant Estelle arranging a vase of flowers, it is, for the city of New Orleans and, it turns out, the Degas House itself, the most important of all. Portrait of Mme René De Gas, née Estelle Musson now resides in the New Orleans Museum of Art. How it became a cornerstone of the collection is a great story that in no small measure inspired Villarrubia to become the steward of the home where it was painted, just a few blocks away from the museum.
“In 1965, the then Delgado Museum [New Orleans Museum of Art] was empty. They had to lure people from the Quarter to an empty museum. The director at the time, James Byrnes, took on the challenge of putting something in the museum done by the most famous painter that ever lived in New Orleans, Edgar Degas. He found a painting on the market, the portrait of Estelle, went on a public campaign to raise enough funds to buy it and was able to do that through a campaign called ‘Bring Estelle Home.’ As a campaign, it involved every layer of society. The city put up some money, corporations put up some money, Junior League, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, bake sales at schools, everybody participated. On the final day, he was $5,000 short. He went back on radio and TV making a further appeal. Late into the night, he got a call from an anonymous donor who put up the money so they would not have to re-crate the painting and send it back to London.”
With the restoration of the Degas House and the success of the campaign to “Bring Estelle Home,” the historic connection between New Orleans and Edgar Degas—one of Louisiana’s “almost” children—is perpetuated for generations to come.Filed under: Architecture, Arts, Design, Front Page Feature, Homes and Gardens, May-June 2012, Travel