Edgar Degas Cotton Exchange New Orleans (1873) is one of the most celebrated and unusual French Impressionist paintings.
Also referred to as “Interior of an Office of Cotton Buyers” and “Portraits in an Office” it provides a fascinating insight into nineteenth century American life.
Amongst Edgar Degas art, the painting is highly unusual for its male sitters. Degas is now famed for his delicate female nudes and ballet dancers, rather than depictions of white-collar workers.
Degas traveled to New Orleans in 1872, on an extended family visit. His family had strong ties to Creole New Orleans.
Indeed, Degas’ grandfather (on his mother’s side) was born in Port-Au-Prince in Haiti. After the revolution, the family relocated to New Orleans and set-up trading as cotton exporters.
Of course, this business venture explains the subject matter of Degas’ painting. Degas spent a significant amount of time at the office. He helped with mail, as well as simply reading the newspaper and listening to his uncle and brother’s business conversations.
This resulted in the iconic representation of the New Orleans Cotton Exchange, which has since become one of Edgar Degas’ most famous paintings.
Despite this, cotton was the overarching theme. Writing to a fellow impressionist painter James Tissot, Degas commented that in New Orleans one could speak of “nothing but cotton.”
Degas hoped the painting would appeal to the new industrial classes emerging in France and England at the time. He planned to sell the work to a textile manufacturer based in the English city of Manchester, but was heavily disappointed when the painting didn’t appeal.
New Orleans was the USA’s most important cotton trading center, with significant links to the slave trade. The city played an influential role in financing the Confederacy war effort during the American Civil War of the 1860s.
This legacy was still evident in the early 1870s. At this time, newly liberated black farmers were subject to severe racism and oppressive working practices. Both the Musson and Degas families personally owned and profited from slaves.
The actual cotton office (found on Carondelet Street) belonged to Degas’ maternal uncle, Michel Musson.
Originally exhibited as part of the 1876 Impressionist Exhibition in Paris, the painting now hangs in the Musée des beaux-arts in Pau, France.
As well as his uncle, Degas included his own brothers, Musson’s son-in-law (William Bell) and other business partners. The men partake in various business and leisure activities, with René Degas prominently reading a newspaper.
Michel Musson inspects cotton in the foreground, whilst Achille Degas leans against a window towards the front-left of the composition. William Bell stands near the central long table, encouraging a customer to try the cotton.
The men’s highly fashionable clothing represents the life-cycle of cotton itself. After its transformation into textiles, the cotton’s onward journey is symbolized by the painting of a steamship at the back of the room.
Despite the importance of The Cotton Exchange, Edgar Degas Ballerina paintings are more widely known. The New Orleans scene (with its skewed perspective and carefully arranged characters) shares many similarities with his ballet scenes however.
As well as professional ballet dancers, the artist often portrayed working scenes. Edgar Degas paintings such as The Laundresses (1884) and Woman Ironing (1887) demonstrate his enduring fascination with labor in all forms.
We have a large catalog of oil painting reproductions by French Impressionist artist Edgar Degas.
Discover more about Degas oil paintings and the life of this famous artist.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas, more generally known as Edgar Degas, was an Impressionist Movement painter born in France in 1834. Degas was a versatile artist working in many mediums, including oil paintings, pastels, drawings and sculpture.
Degas never married but he had a close friendship with American Impressionist art Mary Cassatt which spanned many years and it is thought he contributed to her painting Little Girl in a Blue Armchair 1878.
Degas studied at the famous Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris but did not complete his studies and for 5 years he explored the Renaissance Movement artists in Italy where he studied Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.
Degas returned to Paris in 1859 and began painting portraits of family and the upper echelons of French Society, often reworking his paintings several times.
Degas Bellelli Family Portrait features his Aunt Laura and her husband with their two daughters.
Degas enlisted in the National Guard upon the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. It was there he discovered an eyesight problem which continued to trouble him throughout his life.
Post-war, Degas stayed with his brother in New Orleans in Lousianna, where his famous painting the Cotton Exchange in New Orleans 1873 was completed.
Upon his return to Paris later that year, Degas sold his assets in order to rescue his brother from financial debt. This meant that Degas was now reliant on the sale of his own art to provide a living.
Degas joined the Impressionist Movement, working with Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Renoir and female impressionist artists Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. However, Degas was a conservative figure and the scandal which the Impressionist Exhibitions attracted left him isolated from the group.
Degas is known for his ballerina paintings which comprise around 50% of his output.
Famous Degas ballet paintings include The Dance Class 1874 which reveals an imagined scene in the rehearsal room of the Paris Opera with the renowned ballet teacher Jules Perrot leading the class. This painting was part of the Impressionist Exhibition 1876 and is now held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Degas' ballerina painting, The Star, Prima Ballerina, aka L'Etoile, was painted in 1878 some four years later, and depicts a single ballerina as seen from the balcony. This painting forms part of the Musee d'Orsay, Paris collection.
Two Ballet Dancers 1879 is held by the Shelburne Museum in Vermont as a gift from the Electra Havemeyer Webb Fund.
Blue Dancers 1899 is held by the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. This painting is a favorite Degas reproduction which stands out for its harmony of color and four ballerinas' mid-movement.
The Dance Studio c1878 features a solitary ballerina and is a particular favorite Degas ballerina artwork.
Degas' horse paintings started during the mid-1860. Degas horse racing paintings display a depth of anatomical knowledge and generally depict scenes before the race has started.
During later life Edgar Degas famous paintings of nudes include bathers in various and sometimes awkward poses. Degas' impressionist nude paintings attracted both praise and criticism but by this time it was generally acknowledged that Degas had little respect for the female sex, having once referred to the ballerinas in his painting as "little monkey girls". When asked by a woman "Why make women look ugly", Degas reportedly replied "Because, Madame, in general women are ugly".
Although Degas worked furiously in his later years his failing eyesight restricted his output. He died in Paris in 1917 of a brain hemorrhage.
A large selection of Degas canvas art oil paintings can be purchased from our online catalog
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