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How did Edgar Degas create ‘A Cotton Office in New Orleans’?

A Cotton Office in New Orleans is a seminal piece by impressionist artist Edgar Degas. On a trip to New Orleans in 1872, Degas was inspired to produce the piece after visiting the cotton office of his brother. The artwork, which mixes portraiture and genre art, is one of the most important portrayals of 18th century capitalism, and was the only work bought by a museum during Degas’s lifetime. In this article, Singulart will explore the influence of New Orleans in Degas’s work, as well as examining Degas’s artistic style. 

The life of Edgar Degas 

Degas was born in Paris in 1834 to a Creole mother and French father. The eldest of five children, he was born into a moderately wealthy family, and began schooling at age 11 at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. By the time he graduated, he had turned a room in his family’s house into an art studio, and had secured a job as a copyist at the Louvre. However, after pressure from his father, he instead enrolled in the Faculty of Law at the University of Paris, and commenced studies in 1853. He put little effort into his studies, and by 1855 he was enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. 

He exhibited for the first time at the 1866 Salon, the official art exhibition for the Académie des Beaux-Arts. His submitted work, Steeplechase – The Fallen Jockey, received little attention, although it did show his work moving in a more contemporary direction. This can be attributed to his friendship with Manet, who he had met while they were both copying the same artwork at the Louvre. In 1870, following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, Degas enlisted in the National Guard. During his time serving his eyesight was found to be defective, and this would cause considerable strain for Degas throughout the rest of his life. After the Paris Commune seized the capital for two months in 1871, Degas took an extended trip to visit family in New Orleans. 

Upon his return to Paris, Degas formed the Société Anonyme des Artistes, along with Manet, Sisley and other impressionist artists. Degas would go on to participate in the eight exhibitions held by the collective, showcasing paintings such as The Dancing Class and Dancers Practicing at the Bar

Degas ceased working in 1912, after becoming increasingly reclusive, and died in September 1917. Never married, he spent the last few years of his life relentlessly wandering the streets of Paris as his eyesight deteriorated. 

Edgar Degas, the painter behind A Cotton Office in New Orleans.
Edgar Degas

Impressionist or Independent?

Degas referred to himself as an independent, rather than a part of any one movement. By the late 1860s he had started to move away from historical works and reproductions, instead focusing on capturing scenes of daily life in Paris. It was during this time that Degas began to experiment with his techniques. He would mix his pastels with liquid fixative to create an almost paste-like effect, he tried combining oils and pastels, and he incorporated charcoal into his work. These techniques helped to create the rich surface effects that Degas is so well-known for.

While Degas is referred to as an impressionist, he had a complex relationship with the impressionist movement, saying “no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing.” He derided the en plein air aspect of impressionism, instead preferring to paint more personal subjects. 

Degas’s travels to New Orleans 

In 1872, Degas traveled to New Orleans to visit his family. He was immediately taken with New Orleans, as his brother René recorded in a letter: “Edgar is so curious about New Orleans, questioning the family on their lives. He seems entirely enchanted by their southern accents and is trying to learn how to imitate them.”

Degas spent his time in New Orleans painting portraits of his family, most frequently of his first cousins Estelle, Mathilde and Désirée Musson. Although he was obliging his family’s requests, he felt creatively stifled and wrote in a letter, “There is nothing so complex as family portraits!… The subjects are loving but rather brazen, and they are less inclined to take you seriously because you happen to be their nephew or cousin.”

After visiting his brother’s cotton office, he extended his stay by another three months in order to commence work on A Cotton Office in New Orleans

Musicians in the Orchestra (1872) by Edgar Degas, the painter behind A Cotton Office in New Orleans.
Musicians in the Orchestra (1872) by Edgar Degas.

A Cotton Office in New Orleans

Degas began painting A Cotton Office in New Orleans with the view of selling it to a British textile manufacturer. In the painting, we can see his brother René, the central figure reading a newspaper, and René’s father-in-law in the foreground of the painting, holding a ball of cotton. They are surrounded by other workers captured in the milieu of daily life. In fact, while Degas was working on A Cotton Office in New Orleans, his brother was facing financial ruin, and the business would be bankrupt before the completion of the piece. In fact, it has been speculated that the newspaper René is reading carries news about the collapse of the business. 

A Cotton Office in New Orleans shows us Degas’s skills in composition. Although the piece has many subjects, he brings everything together by using areas of white – the cotton on the left, through to the newspaper René is holding, and then to the shirt of the figure on the right. The piece is not a literal representation of the day-to-day life in a cotton office – for example, Degas probably left out the African-American porters who were tasked with carrying cotton samples back and forth to storage. He painted with the aim to capture the American business style, which Europeans interpreted as lively and successful, yet also relaxed and friendly. 

To dive into Degas’s distinctive style, explore Singulart’s exclusive collection of Degas-inspired art. Here’s a preview:

Cover image: A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873) by Edgar Davis.

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