1834 - 1917
Edgar Degas was born July 19th, 1834, in Paris, France. He was born into a middle-upper class family and had four younger siblings. His mother died when he was thirteen, and after this, his father and grandfather were primarily responsible for his upbringing.
His father was a well-off banker and hoped that Degas would have relative financial prosperity as the chief motivation for his career. Degas was very well educated, beginning his studies at a school, lycee Louis-le-Grand, which was famous and prestigious. His father wanted Degas to be a lawyer, and consequently Degas began his formal upper-education at the Faculty of Law at the University of Paris as the age of nineteen. However, he had already begun painting and drawing at a very young age, turning his room into a studio. Moreover, before he enrolled at the Faculty of Law, he registered as a copyist at the Louvre Museum in Paris. In short, it was clear to Degas and those close to him that he was going to be an artist. This was not just because he had a passion for it, but also because he was very good at it. Two years after he attempted law school, Degas met famous painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, who encouraged Degas as an artist, and shortly after Degas was admitted to the well-renowned Ecole des Beaux-arts - 'School of Fine Arts' - where he would study with Ingres, Lamothe, and others. After this, he went to Italy for three years to further his education in arts.
Coming out of his education, Degas believed that he would make his reputation as a painter of history. Instead, Degas is often remembered chiefly as one of the founders of the Impressionist movement and style - though many often contend the association of his name with this style as he often diverged from it in many ways. Secondly, Degas is remembered for the way we often find a blend of French, Creole, and sometimes American culture in the depictions that he made in more defining years of his life - from his thirties on. Interestingly, both of these qualities for which he is prominently remembered manifested themselves in his work after he spent time in New Orleans.
Degas and New Orleans
After enlisting in the National Guard and being dismissed because of poor eye sight, Degas moved to New Orleans in a house on Esplanade in 1872. He would not stay in the city long - only five months - but his visit came at a time of radical change and cultural development - often termed "the most decisive moment in Reconstruction New Orleans" (Benfey 1). Many scholars note that the natives of New Orleans are so proud of the fact that Degas stayed in their city that the truth about how much his visit affected his life and his work is often skewed. But, the questions posed by Benfey regarding Degas and New Orleans are arguably fair and valid:
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? (Benfrey 2, italics added)
To begin to understand why Degas and New Orleans are often so closely associated, we can look first at his heritage. Degas's mother, Celestine Musson Degas, was actually born in New Orleans and was raised in a prominent Creole family. So, when Degas traveled to New Orleans to visit some of his family members on his mother's side - the Musson-Rillieux side - he was encountering for the first time the distinct Creole culture that is the cultural hertiage of half of his entire family. Interestingly, because his mother died when he was young, Degas arguably may have been "struck" by this culture and by the fact that he was so closely tied to it. When Degas was born in 1834, his father arranged that a house in New Orleans, a Creole cottage on North Rampart Street, be purchased in Degas's name to celebrate his birth and to link their eldest son to the "mother country." Furthermore, as Benfrey points out, the existence of this "link" between Degas in France and his heritage in New Orleans was constantly coming back into his life:
While Edgar Degas was growing up in Paris, Louisiana must have seemed impossibly remote, and yet there were constant reminders of it. He often heard his mother speak of New Orleans with longing and nostalgia. And visitors, including his grandfather and namesake Germain Musson, brought news of American friends and relatives. With his other grandfather, Hilaire Degas (whose name he also bore), in Naples, Degas seemed destined to look to not one but two exotic realms--Italy and Louisiana--for his sense of self and national identity. (Benfrey 4)
So, although he was in New Orleans for only five months, he came at a seasonally spectacular time for the city, being there during All Saints and All Souls Days celebrations and leaving just after Mardi Gras. Furthermore, he also was in the city at a historically pivotal point for the country, as the United States itself was changing, and for the city of New Orleans, with its unique melting pot of sociopolitical and racial culture was in the midst of Reconstruction and redefinition. Thirdly, he was finally observing and becoming familiar with the Creole culture that held a significant stake in his familiar heritage but with which he had been so far removed all of his life. All of these circumstances and elements came together at a time when Degas was redefining himself as an artist, and with the awareness of these at the forefront, it is not difficult to understand why the work for which he is most renowned came after his time in New Orleans.
Degas was showing his first gray hairs, but he had barely begun the career that led to his lasting fame. Much of the work for which he is best known--the dancers, the bathers, the racehorses--was still in the future. So were the Impressionist exhibitions, in which he played such an important role. Degas in New Orleans was in transition, carefully weighing his options as he reinvented himself as a painter. (Benfrey 6)
"I doubt if there is a city in the world," wrote Frederick Law Olmsted after a visit to New Orleans during the 1850s, "where the resident population has been so divided in its origin, or where there is such a variety in the tastes, habits, manners, and moral codes of the citizens." Such diversity, while sometimes impeding commerce, gave "greater scope to the working of individual enterprise, taste, genius, and conscience; so that nowhere are the higher qualities of man ... better developed, or," Olmsted added slyly, "the lower qualities ... less interfered with. It is precisely this hybrid character of New Orleans that has made for many of her most distinctive creations: the jazz of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong; the complex rituals of Mardi Gras; the stories of George Washington Cable and Kate Chopin; the New Orleans paintings of Edgar Degas. (Befrey 10)
Linking Degas and Chopin
With regard to his view of women in the late 19th-Century, Edgar Degas can be regarded as having divergent perspectives. If we look at his biographical life, which was generally reclusive, and during which he seemed to regard women and the idea of a relationship as entirely repulsive, we could easily speculate, as many scholars such as Robert Hughes have done, that Degas had a strong "Reputation for misogyny" (Hughes 8). At the same time, if one looks at his body of artistic work - which includes drawings, paintings, sculptures, and even photographs - a strong argument could also be made in opposition to the criticism that Degas was an outright misogynist. An overwhelming majority of his work consists of variegated depictions of women, very few of which are ostensibly demeaning or degrading. Moreover, he created many depictions of interactions between women and men wherein the male figure is depicted as a sort of "dark" oppressor over a more brightly portrayed female figure. Not surprisingly, many well-grounded parallels can be made between these depictions of male-female relations in Degas's works and the portrayal of such relations in the short stories of a female literary contemporary of Degas, Kate Chopin.
Perhaps one of the most prominent and most consistent themes in Chopin's work is the depiction of the suppressing environment in which a woman in the late 19th-Century found herself trapped because of the presence and behavior of her male spouse. Chopin depicted these environments of confinement in many of her literary works, writing over 100 years ago. She also worked and wrote in the context of a distinctly different social culture. Because of this separation in time, space, and cultural context, it can, at times, be difficult for a 21st-Century reader to understand and accept the fact that for some of Chopin's female protagonists, it feels as if there is no way out of the grasp of the male oppressor. For example, many contemporary readers will find it easy to criticize a character like Edna in Chopin's The Awakening for resorting to suicide in the face of such confinement. This criticism usually arises from the fact that while in some of her works Chopin makes this environment of complete confinement more apparent, in others it comes across mostly in the subtext and is therefore less apparent, particularly to the far-removed 21st-Century reader. However, in any case where Chopin intends for this environment to be recognized and understood, one can only come closer to such an understanding through contextual immersion. This is precisely the point where we can take the works of Chopin's contemporaries - critics, writers, and even painters - and view these works as a reference point from which we can further understand the particulars of Chopin's creations. As noted, Degas and Chopin have, in many of their works, depicted this environment of female confinement in the presence of male dominance. More specifically, this parallel between Degas's and Chopin's depictions of male-female relations can be drawn in a paradigmatic way between Degas's 1868 painting Interior (commonly referred to as The Rape) and Chopinís short story, "In Sabine." And because the two work in entirely different media - literature and painting - the standing similarities and differences between their respective depictions can offer a deeper contextual perspective on Chopin's trapped female characters.
The "setup" portion of Chopin's "In Sabine" starkly resembles Degas's Interior. We learn early on in the story of the very troubled relationship between our trapped female, 'Tite Reine, and her husband, Mr. Bud Aiken. While our main character, Gregoire, remembers 'Tite Reine as being beautiful and pleasant when he knew her before, he now sees in her "a look of such heartbroken entreaty" that he has never seen in any woman before (Chopin 209). She cries constantly as the story proceeds, and as we learn more and more about the dynamics of the relationship between her and her husband, we get a sense that this relationship is certainly abusive and that she feels extremely trapped. 'Tite Reine makes her feeling of confinement starkly apparent when she says to Gregoire during their first conversation where her husband is not present, "Bud's killin' me. . . . I don' know w'at way to turn no mo'" (Chopin 210). So while ostensibly it may seem like a "workable" marriage given their living conditions - they have food, land, shelter, clothing, a servant, and many other commodities - 'Tite Reine clearly feels as if Mr. Aiken is holding her prisoner in the position of his wife.
Interior (The Rape) 
Looking at Degas's painting, Interior, we will find a very similar depiction that can add even more color to the disparity and lifelessness of 'Tite Reine's situation. Like the couple in Chopinís story, the man and woman that are depicted in the painting have an ostensibly desirable living situation. The room seems to be the woman's, as it is decorated with white colors, pink trims, and flowers. However, Degas makes it very clear that the relationship between the man and the woman is not a healthy one and that something is seriously wrong between them. The woman seems to be sobbing, and like 'Tite Reine, "attempting to dry her eyes on her coarse sleeve" (Chopin 209). And the man, dressed in black colors and casting a long, dark shadow, is blocking a closed door that is clearly the way out of this room. Not only is there no sense that the two desire to care, console, or comfort one another, but the framing of the painting indicates that this woman is in desolation at the behest and control of this man, and that he is not going to let her escape from this desolation that he is causing.
The preceding parallels between the two works are stark and apparent, and now that the two depictions can be accepted as reflections of one another, what is offered in the subtext of the painting can truly help to illuminate the confinement that Chopin is attempting to depict in "In Sabine." The man in Degas's Interior is standing as if in a position of dominance and superiority; it seems as if he is almost lurching over the entire room, literally surveying the woman and all of her possessions. In this sense, Degas is arguably pointing out that the man "provided" all of these things for the woman. These are not her things; this is not her house; she was not the one that made this life, and yet she is trapped inside of it. It is for this reason - because the man built these walls around her - that she is all the more trapped inside this life. Moreover, Degas dresses the woman in the same colors as her room and paints the woman in the same shadings as all of the other objects in the room, blending her with her surroundings. This indicates not only that the man views her as one of his many possessions, but it also shows how she feels completely objectified as simply one of these many possessions, assumedly being treated by the man accordingly. Regardless of whether or not this is a consensual marriage, the environment is artificial and suffocating. In Chopin's story, 'Tite Reine finds herself in a similar state of objectivity, and that is perhaps the chief source of the confinement that she feels. This parallel description also sheds more light on her cry to Gregoire that she doesn't "know w'at way to turn no mo'" (Chopin 210). It wasn't necessarily that she married into this oppressive and trapping situation; rather, it is important to note that this situation was built around her, piece by piece, and one day she woke up and found that there was no way out - that Bud was blocking the door. None of these conclusions are directly implied in the narrative or in the dialogue between the characters of "In Sabine." But, when we recognize that there are many obvious, more overt parallels between the story and Degas's painting, we can begin to see one work as the reflection of the other. It is then that we can match up the less-obvious parallels that exist in the subtext and subsequently broaden and enlighten our interpretive perspectives on both.
Although this environment of complete confinement is the framework for many of Chopin's stories and for many of her female characters, the ways in which these characters deal with being trapped varies. Some of the women persist unhappily in the environment until death, others choose suicide, and in "In Sabine," 'Tite Reine and Gregoire ride away one night with Bud's horse, escaping 'Tite Reine's prison. Oftentimes modern readers will get caught up in debate over the climax and falling action of these stories, arguing over the legitimacy of the desperate choices made by our female protagonists. These debates aside, Chopin's setup - confinement to the point where there is seemingly no way out - remains somewhat consistent. And accordingly, such illuminating parallels between Chopin and her contemporary artists can be useful in order to further one's contextual immersion and understanding of this environment and just how suffocating it was for a woman. Admittedly, it is perhaps impossible for one to be so immersed that the environments being depicted by Chopin are understood to the same extent that she understood them. But, each step that a reader takes in the direction of this furthered understanding, no matter how small, serves to increase the experience of each story, novel, and painting of the era, and to increase our understanding of their depictions.
To read more about artwork in relation to Kate Chopin and her work, visit the 1999 website.