Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
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Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

Femme assise dans un jardin

Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Femme assise dans un jardin
oil on canvas
13 x 16 in. (33 x 40.7 cm.)
Painted in New Orleans, 1872-1873
Estate of the artist; sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 15-16 November 1918, lot 32.
Alphonse Kann, Saint-Germain-en-Laye (by 1924).
Confiscated from the above by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, November 1941 (ERR No. KA 37);
Recovered by the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives Section at Alt Aussee, Austria (No. 174/2);
Transferred to the Munich Central Collecting Point, 20 June 1945 (MCCP No. 180/2);
Returned to France 18 April 1946 and restituted to Alphonse Kann, 11 July 1947.
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune et Cie., Paris (1956).
Acquired from the above by the late owners, July 1956.
P.A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, Paris, 1946, vol. II, p. 160, no. 315 (illustrated, p. 161; with incorrect provenance).
J.S. Boggs, Portraits by Degas, Berkeley, 1962, p. 126.
J.B. Byrnes, Edgar Degas, His Family and Friends in New Orleans, exh. cat., Isaac Delgado Museum of Art, New Orleans, May-June 1965, p. 50 (illustrated, fig. 23).
F. Russoli and F. Minervino, L'opera completa di Degas, Milan, 1970, p. 102, no. 354 (illustrated; titled Donna in poltrona, all'aperto).
M. Potter et al., The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection: European Works of Art, New York, 1984, vol. I, pp. 131-132, no. 35 (illustrated in color, p. 131).
G. Feigenbaum, Degas and New Orleans, A French Impressionist in America, exh. cat., New Orleans Museum of Art, 1999, p. 193, no. 21b (illustrated in color; dated circa 1868-1873 and titled Young Woman Seated in Garden).
Paris, Galeries Georges Petit, Degas, April-May 1924, p. 24, no. 21.
Paris, Musée de l'Orangerie, Degas, Portraitiste, Sculpteur, July-October 1931, p. 62, no. 70 (dated circa 1880 and titled Portrait de jeune femme).
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Lot Essay

On 12 October 1872, Degas set out from Liverpool on a paddle steamer called the Scotia, bound for his mother’s birthplace of New Orleans. At age 38, he was at a turning point in his career. Along with Manet, he had become a leading figure among the artists who gathered at the Café Guerbois in Paris, set on contravening Salon traditions and forging a revolutionary modern mode of painting. He had begun to develop a repertoire of contemporary-life themes and had just sold two ballet pictures to Durand-Ruel, the emerging impresario of the movement. He was eager, however, for a break from Paris, having suffered through the Prussian siege and the slaughter of the Commune the previous year. Hence, when his brother René—who had moved to New Orleans in 1865 to seek his fortune—prepared to set sail after a summer in Paris, Degas decided to join him.
Although he initially planned only a two-month visit, Degas ended up staying until March 1873 with his uncle Michel Musson, a successful cotton merchant, and Michel’s wife Odile. Also living in the family home were the couple’s three grown daughters—one of whom, Estelle, was married to René—and their own children, six in total plus a seventh on the way. Eschewing the exotic and unfamiliar subjects that he found in New Orleans, Degas spent most of his visit painting the women and children in the family—at least when they would acquiesce. “Nothing is more difficult than doing family portraits,” he lamented. “To make a cousin sit for you who is feeding an imp of two months is quite hard work” (quoted in Degas, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, p. 180). Femme assise dans un jardin is part of this extraordinary series of portraits, hauntingly melancholy in mood, all of which Degas brought back with him to Paris and kept in his studio until his death.
Rather than focusing on his cousins’ individuality, Degas allowed a family resemblance to dominate, perhaps summoning memories of his own mother, a dark-eyed Creole beauty who had died when he was thirteen. The present painting has conventionally been identified as an image of Désirée, the eldest of the three Musson sisters and the only one to remain unwed. The artist had developed a particular affection for Désirée when she, Estelle, and Odile visited France in 1863-1865 to escape the privations of New Orleans during the Civil War. He even seems to have briefly considered following in his brother’s footsteps by marrying a cousin. “I am thirsting for order,” Degas wrote to Henri Rouart. “I do not even regard a good woman as the enemy of this new method of existence” (quoted in, ibid., p. 182).
Another possibility, however, is that Femme assise dans un jardin depicts the middle Musson sister Mathilde, whom Degas rendered on another occasion as a coquettish Southern belle on the veranda of the family home (Lemoisne, no. 318). “There is a sexual confidence in her bearing,” Jean Sutherland Boggs wrote about the present sitter, “and the expression of her eyebrows, eyes, and mouth that do not suggest Désirée” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1999, p. 193). The model lies back languorously on a chaise in the intimate, enclosed setting of the family garden, eyes closed in slumber, a white scarf protecting her head from the southern sun. Perhaps she is simply indulging in a midday siesta, the heat producing a certain lassitude, or perhaps she has taken ill; Mathilde would die tragically young in 1878. “In any case the pain seems to be a passing affair, and we are free to take pleasure in the sight of a pretty young woman drowsing in a garden,” Boggs concluded (ibid., p. 193).

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