Tuesday, July 5, 2011

BIG EASY: Degas in New Orleans

A few months ago, I came across this really cool kids’ art book at the library called, “The Usborne Art Treasury: Pictures, Paintings, and Projects,” by Rosie Dickins. It includes brief stories about some well-known artists’ lives and techniques, vibrant images of their work, and corresponding projects with step-by-step instruction. I was so excited when I found it! Which is why it sat around my house for months while I renewed it 20 times before I could figure out exactly how I wanted to use it. Finally, my son and I found ourselves in a camp/activity lull last week, and there’s nothing like a bored five-year-old to motivate a mom.

We randomly dove into the Vincent Van Gogh project first. Thick, swirly paint, the story of a dude who goes crazy and cuts his ear off? I was correct in assuming this would be a big hit with my son. But as I skimmed through the book, I came across a section on Edgar Degas and the light bulb popped up over my head. Degas lived in New Orleans for a while – field trip possibilities! Yes!

First we headed on over to the New Orleans Museum of Art (on a Wednesday afternoon, of course, because it’s free!), to visit a few real-live Degas pieces. Our project was going to involve pastels, so checking out the smudgy technique was of particular interest.

The next day we swung by the Degas House at 2306 Esplanade Avenue in Mid-City. The half-hour film they show before the tours is quite interesting for adults – not so much for squirmy kids (thank goodness for Bakugan and pen and paper). It tells of a French artist in a midlife/identity crisis who seeks a temporary change of scenery at his mother’s Creole family home in New Orleans. Problem was, it was 1872 and New Orleans was in the middle of the miserable Reconstruction, so it wasn’t exactly a party town. Yet, Degas found inspiration in our fair city, creating several classic paintings here, then returning to France and launching a revolutionary new art movement with his fellow impressionists.

Oh, and after he left, his stupid brother ran off with some ol' hussy neighbor, leaving behind his blind wife, Estelle, the subject in many of Degas’ works (pictured below, on the balcony of the Degas House), and his children. An uncle adopted the kids and changed their names to Musson, forever severing that branch of the Degas family in New Orleans. Years later, they wound up dividing the house in half, much like the family! Today, it’s two separate buildings that serve as a bed and breakfast, museum, and event facility. Each guest room is dedicated to a member of the family who lived there, and you can see the actual backdrops for some of Degas’ paintings around the property.

We did a DIY tour, out of squirmy-little-boy necessity, and I was able to summarize the film as we explored the house. He actually retained some of the information from the film on his own, but was disappointed that Degas didn’t engage in any self-mutilation, a la Van Gogh, but what are ya gonna do?

Our abridged tour was fun and all, but I’m totally planning to schedule a breakfast/tour with my mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law, which includes a Creole breakfast, bloody mary or mimosa, AND a tour conducted by Degas’ real-live grandnieces! How cool is that?! They also have Tuesday “Bottles and Brushes with Degas” events, which include a social hour followed by painting instruction.

Our next stop was, of course, Café Degas, which is just a few blocks north at 3127 Esplanade, in the Bayou St. John district. What a quaint little joint! It feels like a cross between a treehouse and a Parisian café. Most of it is “outside” on a covered deck, thankfully enclosed with plastic and air-conditioned in the summertime. There’s a tree growing right through the middle and each table is covered by a white table cloth, adorned with sparkly Chambord-bottle flower vases, and surrounded by charmingly shabby white wrought iron chairs. My son’s not much on fromage or La Salade Niçoise, so we just split the Dark Chocolate Decadence dessert – ooh la la! Unfortunately, the boy wolfed down much of it while I perused the amazing menu. The brunch and cocktail/wine selections were especially appealing to me. Just saying, “Châteauneuf-du-Pape” makes me want to brush up on my French and renew my passport! Or, y'know, at least plan a foofy girlie lunch or romantic date night.

Finally, we headed home to start on our project: “Pastel Dancers.” I had the soft pastels covered, but wouldn’t you know we were out of dark construction paper? (It's wise to review the supply list before getting started.) Oh, well – we made due with some sort of rough watercolor paper from our craft bin and dove into the chalky, messy, smudgy goodness. I wondered if my son would fight me on the ballerina subject matter, but I think after learning so much about the male artist who created the masterpieces, gender issues never came up. YES! Once again, I think it’s about hitting that window early!

For more information on the places we visited, please go to:


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