Degas’ Estelle: The Painting that Changed NOMA

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NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA– Art has always been part of the integrity of the city. In 1965, the community showed how interest in a painting could rejuvenate a museum. Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas is a painting that hangs in the New Orleans Museum of Art and created in 1872 by Edgar Degas. This painting was bought by NOMA in 1965 and the greater artist community of the country knew all about it.

Russell Lord is Curator of arts, prints, and photographs at NOMA, he is also a well-versed writer on the topic of 19th century French culture, saying, “the purchase of Estelle generated a lot of attention nationally and globally. Even a photographer from Time Magazine came to New Orleans to photograph this painting.”

NOMA was established in 1911 as theĀ Delgado Museum of Art. It needed to make a transition by collecting fine art that would make a statement and obtaining a painting from one of the city’s most famous impressionists would be just the ticket. However it came with a price tag of 190,000 dollars.

To raise the funds, the Delgado Museum of Art began a crowd sourcing effort, long before the days of GoFundMe accounts. The museum held a luncheon with New Orleans poboys, the local television stations had a telethon to raise money and school children had their own fundraiser as well. When all of the effort came together the city had purchased a sense of pride as well as a fine piece of art. As Delgado Museum continued to evolve it changed it’s name in 1971 to the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Estelle’s portrait may not be the favorite of art collector’s or the most dazzling piece of art in NOMA, but it might very well be the most important because of what it represents and how it paved the way for change. Lisa Rotondo-McCord is the NOMA Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs/Curator of Asian Art and says, “when I first came to NOMA, I would encounter older people in the gallery with their children and they would say to the child, I helped buy that painting.”

Estelle hangs in the front of the museum, positioned with her face lookin out the door and down the street from NOMA is Degas House. Degas owned a house on Esplanade where his studio is now a museum. Last year the house received the Maisons des Illustres, an honor rarely bestowed outside of France. It is given to buildings that have cultural significance to France. However Degas House is yet one of the many ways in which New Orleans shares an inseparable tie to France.

Joan Prados is Degas’ great, great niece and as she looks at the portrait of Estelle she says, “she is my great grandmother and also Degas Cousin. Estelle suffered from severe eyesight problems from the time she was in her early 20’s. By the time Degas came here, she was almost totally blind. At the time Degas is also having eyesight problems and can sympathize with her.”

Estelle is unique in that it is a snapshot in Degas’ career. Edgar Degas arrived in the city in 1872 at the same time he starts to paint Estelle, his eyesight is waning. His artistic style changes from realism to what we consider impressionism.

Art is a reflection of our experiences and the lesson in the Portrait of Estelle is poignant, especially today, as the city’s art and artists struggle financially under the weight of the virus. It is the lesson to always support the culture even when times are the most dire. No matter how small the contribution, a few sparks can ignite a fire of inspiration.

This week, NOMA is open to the public.

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