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Degas’ Birds

In response to:

Degas in New Orleans from the July 15, 1999 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of the exhibition “Degas and New Orleans” [NYR, July 15, 1999] James Fenton states that the notebook studies shown in it are merely “sketches Degas is supposed to have made on board the Scotia, bound for New York in 1872.” Fenton is sure that “there is a glitch in the scholarship here, since [Jean] Boggs [the principal author of the exhibition’s catalog] follows Theodore Reff [The Notebooks of Edgar Degas, Oxford, 1976] in supposing that white pelicans can only have been seen in some zoo or park, and the pages of the notebook cannot therefore have been used in the order Reff supposed.”

I still find it hard to imagine Degas, of all artists, going to a zoo or park to sketch birds, of all creatures. And given his normal practice in handling a notebook, I find it even harder to imagine him leaving two pages blank, using the next three to draw pelicans and ducks somewhere in France,1 then filling the two pages before these bird studies and six pages after them with sketches of a fellow passenger on the Scotia and a log of its daily progress from Liverpool to New York. It seems much easier to imagine that Degas drew the pelicans and ducks, some of them swimming and others roosting, as the ship approached New York or entered its harbor. Why is Fenton so certain that this could not have been the case?

I know nothing about his expertise in ornithology. My own is so limited that I mistakenly identified the ducks as cormorants, as he and others have noted. But provoked by Fenton, I have now learned that Degas certainly could have seen both white and brown Pelicans (his unshaded, monochromatic studies do not indicate their color) in the New York area. They have in fact been sighted much further north: the brown pelican “has wandered as far east as Nova Scotia” and the white pelican “to practically every province in Canada and nearly every state in the United States.”2 White pelicans, to cite a few chronologically relevant examples, were seen in Massachusetts in October 1876, in New Brunswick in April 1881, and in Maine in May 1892 and June 1897.3 In the New York region, specimens of white pelicans were taken at Roslyn in May 1885 and in Canarsie Bay in 1893; a specimen of the brown pelican was taken at Sandy Hook in 1837, and others were seen at East Marion in August 1902.4

Admittedly, these were exceptional events, but just such an event might well have caused a sufficient stir on board the Scotia for Degas to take out his pocket notebook to sketch these unfamiliar birds. In any event, the situation is clearly more complex, and more interesting, than the language of “can only,” “cannot,” and “glitch” acknowledges.

Theodore Reff
Professor of Art History
Columbia University
New York City

James Fenton replies:

I am sorry to have “provoked” the admirable Professor Reff, but there is a glitch in the scholarship, which shows in the works of those who rely on Reff’s edition of Notebook 25, pages 161-175. Reff says that these pages were evidently used in the reverse order, and he regularly tells the reader to turn to page 166 for the date of the drawings. On page 166, Degas has kept a log of the progress of his ship, the Scotia, from October 12, 1872, to the 18th of the same month, the first seven days of his voyage. We know that the Scotia docked in New York on October 23 at 6:34 AM. Degas himself says he made the crossing in ten days. Among the sketches which Reff identifies as being “evidently passengers on the boat Degas took to New York” is a group of three studies of birds, pages 167, 168, and 169. The first of these shows “two finely shaded sketches of cormorants,” the second “seven sketches of cormorants” and the third “five sketches of a white pelican.”

On the basis of these identifications and dates, Roy McMullen, in his 1985 biography of Degas, tells us that, having embarked for New York on the Scotia, “Edgar was soon sketching passengers, pelicans, and especially the voracious North Atlantic cormorants.” And Jean Sutherland Boggs, in her catalog for the New Orleans show, follows Reff closely, having Degas on board the Scotia, probably still near the shores of Ireland, sketching pelicans and cormorants.

The reason I objected to this scenario (and still do) is that theEuropean version of the white pelican is a bird of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea, not to be found anywhere near Liverpool or the shores of Ireland. Furthermore the cormorants were a figment of Reff’s imagination.

It never occurred to me that Reff would come back saying that the sketches of pelicans were made “as the ship approached New York or entered its harbor” or that he would so glibly turn his cormorants into ducks, and that he would then come on as if there has been no glitch in the scholarship. He has changed the dating of the two sketches. He has ransacked the libraries for rare sightings of pelicans. He has roused Degas from his bunk at the crack of dawn (the sun rose at 6:16 AM and the ship docked at 6:34 AM) to draw swimming and roosting pelicans and ducks.

I see no roosting birds on any of these pages. I see at least one gull and perhaps a goose as well. But I also see that, if Reff’s order is to stand, all these birds were drawn well before page 163, on which Degas has written, as Reff transcribes it, “jeune à Montréal.” Reff tells us in his edition that the Scotia must have stopped in Montreal en route to New York. (Neither McMullen nor Boggs follows him in this.) It’s a good thing those brown pelicans he mentions made it as far as Nova Scotia—Reff seems to have them in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

I do not understand what the note on page 163 means, but I do not believe in a thousand-mile diversion via Montreal. Does the note refer to one of the French places called Montréal? It is a mystery. But I remain of the opinion that the most obvious place for Degas to see pelicans is in some zoo or park. If he went from Paris to Liverpool via London, the easiest place to see pelicans would surely have been St. James’s Park. There too he could have seen a variety of other birds including ducks. He could have opened his notebook at random and drawn three pages of sketches. On the next day, on the next page, he could have begun his log of the voyage.

  1. 1

    Or in New Orleans, where of course Pelicans abound? Again, however, the sequence of the sketches makes this unlikely; and the absence of other notes or studies of a place Degas found so visually stimulating makes that possibility seem still less likely.

  2. 2

    Arthur C. Bent, Life Histories of North American Petrels and Pelicans and Their Allies (Washington, D.C., 1922), pp. 293 and 301.

  3. 3

    Bent, Life Histories.

  4. 4

    Frank M. Chapman, The Birds of the Vicinity of New York City, American Museum of Natural History Guide, Leaflet No. 22 (1906), p. 139. Ludlow Griscom, Birds of the New York City Region (New York, 1923), pp. 89-90. Subsequent sightings of both birds are listed in John Bull, Birds of the New York Area (New York, 1964), pp. 84-85.

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