Monday, April 24, 2017

Lunch at Cafe Degas.

Yesterday my French friend and I had lunch at Café Degas. The longest running and most Gallic French Restaurant in New Orleans. It was named after the 19th century French Impressionist, Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas, who in 1872 visited New Orleans and stayed for a short time down the street at 2306 Esplanade Ave.

French artist and restaurateur, Jacques Soulas, came to New Orleans in 1980, and with his friend Jerry Edgar decided to build a restaurant that would be reminiscent of his homeland, and where diners could experience French Bistro atmosphere (with a New Orleans touch), good food and an inspired Wine List. 

They chose the current location for old historic charm, the area's artful and picturesque appeal, and because the available space was just right for the effect they were trying to create.

House made smooth & country pâtés with garlic and dry saucissons,
fig mustard and cornichons

Prince Edward Island mussels steamed in white wine, fennel, fresh herbs,
served with pommes frites and roasted garlic aioli

Edgar Degas traveled to New Orleans during the fall of 1872 to spend a few months visiting the considerable American branch of his family. His visit is something of a legend in New Orleans, told and retold with the casual disregard for historical accuracy that affects many New Orleans memories, but it is barely known elsewhere. The journey to New Orleans marked a key moment in Degas's career, however. Distracted and stalled in his profession on his arrival, he left the city with a new sense of direction and resolve. He also took with him, in his portfolio and his mind, several unforgettable images of New Orleans life.

As chance would have it, Degas's five-month sojourn in New Orleans coincided with an extraordinarily contentious period in the stormy political history of the city. One could argue that it was the decisive moment in Reconstruction New Orleans, as the city, under Federal control and under the constant threat of military occupation, tried to recover from the ravages of the Civil War. Degas's American relatives were among the leaders in this political upheaval.

It was also a key moment in the cultural history of this most exotic of American cities. During precisely this uneasy period, several major American writers were beginning to mine the resources of New Orleans culture and history, often choosing the same subjects, experiencing the same events, and moving in the same social circles, as did Edgar Degas. What was it about this war-torn, diverse, and conflicted city that elicited from Degas some of his finest works? What can his paintings and letters tell us about New Orleans during a pivotal period in Reconstruction Louisiana? And what do we need to know about the intricate weave of New Orleans society--French and "American," black and white, native and newly arrived--to make sense of Degas's sojourn there?

Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917), Portrait of Estelle Musson De Gas (the artist's sister-in-law), 1872; Oil on canvas

Degas, Edgar
Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas
48 x 63 in. (framed)

Degas's mother, Celestine Musson, was a legendary Creole beauty from New Orleans.


  1. Thank you for this, Andrew. I didn't know about Degas' Creole ancestry; don't know how I missed that! Thanks especially for the last image. Painted at exactly the same time as the François Meuret miniature of my wife's Creole ancestress. And the frame - ours is mostly covered in mourning black paint; you told me how to clean it - is in the same style, same construction. : )

    1. I should do a post about Degas' Creole ancestry. It's so interesting.I wonder if your ancestor and Degas' mother knew each other in Paris since they both were from New Orleans and lived in Paris at the same time.

    2. You should! I'm so grateful for all the information you share about Creole New Orleans, Andrew, and about the important, lingering connections with France. It's certainly nothing I knew about before, and it's so wonderful to have a rich context for Gigi's lovely ancestress and her family. And, yes, it's easy to imagine that the Gallien de Prévals, the de Gas/Degas family, and even the Pontalbas, were well acquainted.

      (I love how the family styled themselves "de Gas", hoping to sound more aristocratic - and then the famous painter "got real" with the spelling of his own name.)