“I have just had and still have a spot of weakness and trouble in my eyes,” wrote Degas to his then friend, the painter James Tissot. “It caught me at Chateau by the edge of the water in full sunlight while I was doing a watercolour and it made me lose nearly three weeks, being unable to read or work or go out much, trembling all the time lest Ishould remain like that.” The year was 1871. Degas was thirty-seven, and he seems to have dated his affliction from this period, since he later told Walter Sickert (among others) that “during the siege of Paris, he had slept in a studio with a high window from which the cold air poured down on his face at night.”
The year before, when he had volunteered for the National Guard, he had found that he could not see the target with his right eye. No doubt this would have been something of a humiliation, since it meant that he could not serve his country in quite the way he wanted to. No doubt also the discovery was alarming, since Degas knew that there was blindness in the family: his cousin Estelle Musson, one of his Creole relatives from New Orleans, was losing her sight. Perhaps it would be Degas’s turn next.
It is with some reluctance that one comes to speculate on such questions: one does not wish to perpetrate the mistake of confusing the ophthalmic problems of an artist with matters of style. One does not wish to join the philistines who thought that the Impressionists had an eyesight problem, or to explain El Greco away as a case of astigmatism. Nevertheless it is interesting that Monet is said to have rejected glasses on the grounds that seeing things in sharp focus would “make him see like Bouguereau.” Degas, after borrowing a pair of field glasses at the races, remarked on handing them back: “Just like a Meissonier, isn’t it?”
Both of these remarks can be taken as no more than jokes at the expense of bad painters. But we know that Degas had thought seriously about the questions they imply, for he is recorded as having discussed the theory that Eugène Carrière’s paintings were affected by the peculiarity of his vision. Degas said: “There is one Liebreich in England who is convinced that an artist’s originality lies in the special contexture of the eye…. I am convinced that these differences of vision are of no importance. One sees as one wishes to see. It’s false; and it is that falsity that constitutes art.” Richard Kendall, on whose interesting essay1 I am relying, explains the reference to R. Liebreich: an article called “Turner and Mulready—On the Effect of certain Faults of Vision on Painting, with especial Reference to their Works” in Proceedings of the Royal Institution, 1872. Since Degas had very little English it is unlikely that he had read such an article. No doubt he discussed it with his ophthalmologist.2
Degas was surely right to reject a theory such as Liebreich’s. The reason one is compelled to consider the question of the artist’s eyesight is that it affected both his state of mind and his working practices as a painter. He was being pushed in two directions: on the one hand, he was an obsessive worker, and he had been made to realize that his time as an artist might be limited; on the other, he had to conserve his strength. He could not work in sunlight again, without risking another episode. His vision was not something on which he could casually rely.
Estelle Musson, Degas’s cousin, came with her mother and sister to visit her European relatives in 1863. New Orleans had fallen to the Union forces the year before, and was now in the charge of General Benjamin Butler, who, as Christopher Benfey reminds us, earned international notoriety for his “Woman Order,” which stated that “when any female shall, by word, gesture, or movement, insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be…held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her vocation”—that is to say, she should be treated as a prostitute.3 This was inconceivably insulting. Palmerston said that “an Englishman must blush to think that such an act has been committed by one belonging to the Anglo-Saxon race.”
In the small gray watercolor drawing from the Art Institute of Chicago (cat. no. 8), dated 1865—recently on view in the New Orleans exhibition of Degas’s work there—the three Musson women pose for their artist cousin rather as if they were still reeling from the shock. The mother is in ill health and will die six years later of Bright’s disease. The standing daughter, Désirée, is in her mid-twenties and will never marry. Estelle, seated in the foreground, is a war widow—no sooner married than bereaved. Degas wrote of her that “one cannot look at her without thinking that that face filled the eyes of a dying man.” He painted a small portrait of her in oil (cat. no. 10), which to my eye looks as if it were taken from a photograph (like the portrait of Princess Pauline de Metternich in the National Gallery, London, which was painted in the same period). Jean Sutherland Boggs in her catalog entry tells us that this portrait once belonged to Mary Cassatt, who sold it to Henry Walters. Boggs suggests that Cassatt got rid of the painting because it reminded her of a notorious scandal. René De Gas, Degas’s younger brother, who as a young man married Estelle, later abandoned her and their children. Estelle in this portrait, says Boggs, “has lost any sense of her own self-worth, to have given herself over humbly to despair.”
Having introduced us to Degas’s early portraits of members of his family, and having shown us the kind of work the artist was producing before his trip to America, the New Orleans exhibition gives us a glimpse of some sketches Degas is supposed to have made on board the Scotia, bound for New York in 1872. There is a glitch in the scholarship here, since Boggs follows Theodore Reff in supposing that white pelicans could have been observed by Degas in the North Atlantic, and that two pages of the notebook show studies of cormorants. (They are not cormorants.) The 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.
But now Degas abandoned his notebook, and from this time on there are, Boggs tells us, almost no sketches or drawings preparatory to the work he did in New Orleans. Clearly some notebook or folder has been destroyed or lost, since it is hard to imagine a composition as complex as A Cotton Office in New Orleans being put together without some preliminary studies (one alone survives). What is possible is to imagine that, after a few sketches on deck, Degas abandoned his notebook because he could not work in the open air any longer, and that he drew less on the small scale because he feared straining his eyes. There are no sketches from the stopover in New York, and none of the novel sights from New Orleans he describes in a letter to Tissot dated November 19, 1872:
Villas with columns in different styles, painted white, in gardens of magnolias, orange trees, banana trees, negroes in old clothes like the junk from La Belle Jardinière or from Marseilles, rosy white children in black arms, charabancs or omnibuses drawn by mules, the tall funnels of the steamboats towering at the end of the main street, that is a bit of local colour if you want some, with a brilliant light at which my eyes complain.
On the one hand, the richness of all the new experience; on the other, the realization that one must not paint what was novel for novelty’s sake. The letter goes on:
Everything is beautiful in this world of people. But one Paris laundry girl, with bare arms, is worth it all for such a pronounced Parisian as I am. The right way is to collect oneself, and one can only collect oneself by seeing little.
Degas’s photophobia thus went hand in hand with his aesthetic. He “saw little” in the sense that he stayed indoors and spent his time among largely familiar faces. He wrote to a Danish painter called Lorenze Frölich that “art does not expand, it repeats itself.” And then, in a marvelously odd image, he compares himself to a fruit tree trained along a wire. He says, “I may tell you that in order to produce good fruit one must line up on an espalier. One remains thus all one’s life, arms extended, mouth open, so as to assimilate what is happening, what is around one and alive.”
The letters from New Orleans—there are only five of them—explain very clearly what Degas felt he could manage, and what he could not manage, in these exotic surroundings. One must be open to experience, but one must allow that experience to do its work over time: “It is not good to do Parisian art and Louisiana art indiscriminately, it is liable to turn into the Monde Illustré.—And then nothing but a really long stay can reveal the customs of a people, that is to say their charm.” One only loves and gives art, Degas says, to that to which one is accustomed. And: “Instantaneousness is photography, nothing more.”
“Photography” and “illustration” were to be avoided. Degas regularly achieves this by setting up compositions which both invite interest and defy interpretation. Even the Cotton Office (the Pau version, the more elaborate of the two canvases devoted to this subject), which Degas was quite clear about hoping to sell through Agnews in London to a Manchester collector (that is, to someone with a professional interest in cotton), does not work like an illustration, although it does show many typical activities of such an office. An illustrator would scarcely have given such prominence to a figure reading a newspaper, as if cut off from the activities of those around him. It would not seem like a relevant activity (although of course the reader would be keeping abreast of financial news).
It seems very just to use, as Christopher Benfey does, the word “naturalism” in connection with this picture. Degas calls it “a raw picture if there ever was one,” by which one supposes he means that he has done nothing to bring the raw materials together, nothing as it were to cook the books. In the current exhibition one sees it in the same room as the unfinished version from the Fogg, which Degas described as “less complicated and more spontaneous, better art.” But he was describing the work he intended to achieve. The canvas we see is more like a proposal for a painting.
Degas spent around four months in New Orleans. The Cotton Office alone might seem a fine enough outcome of the trip, but Degas in addition to various family portraits painted Children on a Doorstep (New Orleans) (cat. no. 29), possibly The Pedicure (Musée d’Orsay) and The Song Rehearsal (cat. no. 34). The fact that we have no notebooks for the period makes it hard to tell whether other paintings included here have anything to do with New Orleans, and one is not even certain who the sit-ters are. The temptation is to turn every blind-looking sitter into Estelle, the tragic young wife. Is she the Woman with a Vase of Flowers (cat. no. 27) as well as the woman arranging flowers in New Orleans’s own Portrait of Mme. René De Gas, née Estelle Musson (cat. no. 28)? Does either of these women look at all like the Estelle of Madame René De Gas in the National Gallery of Art in Washington (the only major absence in the show—it may not travel)? We are charmed and moved by the idea that she might take solace from surrounding herself with flowers, and that Degas, who didn’t much like flowers, was happy to associate her with them.
Estelle, after Degas, is the intriguing presence in the exhibition—or rather the intriguing presence in the short story we recount to ourselves as we go round the exhibition: a French artist, in fear of his eyesight, makes a trip to his Creole relatives in New Orleans, where he renews his friendship with his young cousin, now blind, whom his younger brother has married. Confined to the house by his fear of strong light, the artist finds himself thrown back on the company of the womenfolk and the children. It is hopeless trying to paint the children—they will not sit still. But the blind young wife, who is pregnant by the way, and who was a war widow before the artist’s brother married her—she is someone with whom the artist can blamelessly pass the time of day….
The story unfolds. The story recedes. The story may not bear too close examination. It’s a story about eyesight and about the affections. “One sees as one wishes to see,” Degas said.
July 15, 1999
“Degas and the Contingency of Vision,” Burlington Magazine, March 1988. ↩
Liebreich believed that Turner’s middle-period paintings—”pathological, i.e. not quite healthy”—were affected by the artist’s astigmatism. Turner had not gone mad, as others thought. The aspect of nature had gradually changed for him, while he continued, almost “in a naive manner, to reproduce what was in front of him.” Liebreich demonstrated to his audience how a painting of a normal tree, seen through the distorting lens, turned into a “Turner tree.” Mulready’s late faults as an artist were explicable by the yellowing of the lens of his eye. “If you look at these pictures through a yellow glass, all these faults disappear .” ↩
Christopher Benfey, Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable (University of California Press, 1997), p. 51. ↩