Chris Benfey Writes about Painter Edgar Degas' Life in the Nineteenth-Century 'Big Easy'

Christopher Benfey, chair of the American studies program, explores little-known aspects of the life and work of painter Edgar Degas in the just-published Degas In New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable.

Most people know Edgar Degas as the urbane painter of nineteenth-century Parisian scenes, of ballerinas and race horses. Few know that the renowned Impressionist visited New Orleans for six months at the midpoint of his life.

For Chris Benfey, the author of previous books on Emily Dickinson and Stephen Crane, this little-known episode in Degas' life has become the basis of a deeper inquiry, the back door into unfamiliar aspects of this relatively familiar figure and the Creole city he visited.

In 1988, while he was attending an exhibition devoted to Degas' work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Benfey began to think about writing a book about Degas and his brief visit to post-Civil War New Orleans to visit relatives there. "I got to the room with Degas' New Orleans paintings and I stopped," recalls Benfey, chair of the American studies program and author of the just published Degas In New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable. "There was something about the fact that Degas had been here in this country, and in that particular city, that was a luminous moment for me."

Degas' 1872 visit to New Orleans may have been a luminous experience for the painter as well. Far from being the renowned and celebrated figure he was to become, Degas was relatively obscure before his New Orleans sojourn. As Benfey says, Degas "hadn't yet settled on the subjects and styles that would occupy him during the following decades. He was a painter in transition, searching for his true self. And something about the city of New Orleans, itself in a period of rapid change, helped him to focus his energies."

During the 1870s, New Orleans was a city in turmoil, still recovering from loss in the Civil War and embroiled in racial, political, and ethnic strife. Benfey believes that the divisions in the city reflected something in Degas' inner life. Degas himself felt divided between his American roots (his mother was a native of New Orleans) and his French career. Benfey is the first to discover that Degas had African American cousins--another source of division for him to work through in his life and his work. Six months after his arrival in New Orleans, Degas returned to Paris "galvanized, eager, sure of himself," and ready to turn his internal conflicts into the materials of art. He also returned with some of the strongest work of his life to date under his belt--including his famous painting A Cotton Office in New Orleans.

According to Robert Herbert, professor emeritus of fine arts, "Although art historians have written about Degas' family connections in New Orleans, and the painting that resulted from his visit there in 1872-73, Benfey is the first to place Degas fully in that divided city's political and racial culture."

Since its November release, Benfey's book has been reviewed in a number of prominent newspapers, including the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the New Orleans Times Picayune, and the Chicago Tribune. Reviews have been favorable: The Tribune named it one of the ten most important books of the year; adjectives like "elegant," "unorthodox," and "eloquent" predominate.

In approaching his subject, Benfey, unafraid to dive deep into the archives and arcana of New Orleans' history, follows many leads, many tangents, to discern more about the quality of the city at that time and about Degas and his American relatives and acquaintances. His efforts have proved that the shadows that veiled this chapter of New Orleans' history obscured a crucial time in Degas' evolution and the city's.