Louisiana Story

Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable

by Christopher Benfey
Knopf, 294 pp., $27.50

Masters and Servants

by Pierre Michon, translated by Wyatt Alexander Mason
Mercury House, 176 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Edgar Degas, the Impressionist painter of racehorses, ballet dancers, and washerwomen, was the opposite of precocious. It is true that the official Salon jury accepted some of his early paintings. Copying had taught him his craft. But not until he turned thirty did he leave home, give up historical subjects and self-portraits, and begin painting the Second Empire world around him-usually with a model in his studio, not in the open air. He also began to frequent Right Bank cafes and had lengthy conversations about painting with Manet, Monet, and a group of art critics. His embrace of the new “realism” was interrupted by military service during the Franco-Prussian War and by the massacres of the Commune. Then, just when he seemed to be finding his style in vivid small paintings of musicians and dancers, he left Paris in October 1872 to visit his relatives in New Orleans. He was thirty-eight.

The five-month New Orleans sojourn marked no turning point in Degas’ career. He developed a strong affection for several members of his deceased mother’s extended Musson family. He visited the city and some of its outskirts. He began a few family portraits, most of which he finished in Paris. But he took little notice of the disruptive political and social developments of the Reconstruction through which the city was passing during his stay. He made no contact with other artists or with writers in the city. The Louisiana trip was more an intermission than a continuation of his development, a change of scenery and society among admiring relatives. Back in Paris, he returned to painting dancers and washerwomen. And soon he became one of the founding organizers of the association that would later be referred to as the Impressionists. (He deplored the term.) His works appeared in seven of the eight exhibits that the Impressionists mounted between 1874 and 1886.

One does not readily write a book about an intermission. But an enterprising author can soon discover in this bite of history more episodes than first meet the eye, more potential subjects. Degas may not have noticed, but during his stay the uniquely layered Creole society, including many prominent “free men and women of color,” balanced between the Unification Movement, which favored and practiced integration, and the White League, which preached and enforced segregation. That winter, two rival governors and two rival legislatures sat in New Orleans, the Republican government imposed by the occupiers from the North (including fifty-five illiterate Negro legislators), and the alternative Democratic movement. During this crisis, a Northern newspaperman, Edward King, “discovered” the local reporter and story writer George Washington Cable. Both went on to important careers in American letters. And all these events left their mark on the young wife of Oscar Chopin, a cotton factor and member of the Cotton Exchange along with members of the Musson family. Twenty-five years later Kate Chopin drew freely on this interlude for the background of the novel that made her fame, The Awakening (1899).

A …

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Letters

Unreliable Source March 4, 1999