Trois Questions A: David Villarubia, Owner of Degas House in New Orleans
When David Villarubia purchased the dilapidated property at 2306 Esplanade Avenue, he had no idea he had just become the owner of the only known free-standing residence of French impressionist painter Edgar Degas.
In January 1993, there was a for sale sign on this house, and I was interested because there was a historic marker in the front that said that Degas had lived here. I came through for fun, just to see it with a friend who was a real estate agent and a former flight attendant for Delta Airlines. The house was in deplorable shape. I was shocked by just how poor the condition was for a house that should be so prominent. So I thought why don’t we just buy it and get it off the market. The neighborhood is not what it is today, it was a run down and neglected part of town. I was able to secure it, and then I went to local museums and offered it to them, but they weren’t interested. Next I went to the city, and they didn’t even know who Degas was!
I was a pilot for Delta Airlines at the time, flying back and forth to Europe quite a bit. I began flying to Paris, and started doing some research. I had two brothers that were very sick. Within two weeks of my acquisition of this property, the youngest one died, and a year and five days later the next one died. So I needed a project, and this ended up being that project that helped me work through the losses. I was in Paris every week and I started bidding for Paris layovers so I could learn more. I met Henri Loyrette, Degas’ biographer, when he was Director of the Musée d’Orsay. A flight-attendant friend of mine suggested we visit the Monet house, and there it occurred to me that we could do something similar in New Orleans. Loyrette had told me that this was the only known house of Degas. I had no idea! The weight of that statement started to work on me, and I felt a responsibility to really make something out of the property.
I had great advice from Paris, and then I was very connected here with the French-American Chamber of Commerce and the Consul General, who was Nicole Lenoir at the time. She and I met frequently, and she wanted to know what I planned on doing. She introduced me to the local French community and the French Ministry of Culture. I had a tremendous amount of support from Tulane University as well. So that’s kind of how it happened.
Degas was the greatest painter who ever lived in New Orleans, a lot of responsibility comes with that! I’m happy to have had so much advice from outside about what we can be doing or what we should be doing.
I was really interested in history. I had restored another house in the neighborhood built in 1800s. I did a lot of research both here and in Paris on the family that lived there. That really set me up for what would later happen, which I never imagined! I love flying airplanes and that was where my career was at the time, until my company went chapter 11 and Katrina hit the same year.
Then the roles shifted with what we were doing with the property. We started taking people in to give them shelter. For about three years, we were a shelter and were just giving people a place where they could come back to New Orleans, get their businesses started again, and prepare their houses for the families to return. We had the Historic Preservation Team for FEMA for about nine months, some SPA workers, some insurance adjusters, and then we started taking in others that FEMA sent us. We also had some people from Antoine’s. They called, and said “we a need a place for our waiters to live or we’ll never re-open!” So it was a different calling so to speak in that moment that was not really about Degas.
There’s a lot of documentation! Here at the house, I was doing a lot of tearing out. Demolition is really good for the spirit. I found a book in the attic in pile of debris. It was in bad shape, but it really told the story of the family. Multiple losses, Franco-Prussian war, civil war, childbirth, yellow fever, scarlet fever, big sections of the family wiped out. It helped put things in perspective.
Degas did 18 paintings in this house, in his studio in the back corner of the other wing. He wrote letters, which are key to understanding what was going on. When you follow the timeline of his life, he had just come out of the Franco-Prussian war. He fought in the Siege of Paris with Edouard Manet and Frédéric Bazille. They saw a lot of action, and Bazille was killed in battle. They were very committed Parisians, and they couldn’t stand the fact that the city had surrendered. So Degas had lost one of his best friends, his girlfriend had ditched him for another guy and married somebody else, and he found out he was going blind in his left eye. The military wanted him to be a sniper but he couldn’t pass the eye exam. He was losing sight at age 35. He was not having a good experience during that period. He needed a break, so he came here to New Orleans to join his two brothers who were living here in their uncle’s’ house with their three female cousins and their children. Eighteen people total, it was a very crowded household! He was very obliging to the family, who wanted them to paint them, even though he hadn’t painted in two years. He was the only one to have a room of his own. They cleared out an old store room and made a bedroom/studio space for him. So he gets back into painting a little bit at a time, and starts to do family portraits.
We know of several sites he went to while he was in New Orleans. The new fairgrounds opened just a month after his arrival. One of the occupants of the house, William Bell, who was married to his cousin Mathilde Buisson, was the commissioner of racing. It was a natural thing for them to do. He was painting race horses, he really loved movement, so we know he spent time at the track! He also spent a good deal of time at his uncle’s cotton office. He actually draws the cotton office for a very important painting, which he intends to sell as his first commercial work for a cotton merchant in Manchester, England. It’s a very complicated painting because there are fourteen people in it, including his brothers, his uncle, William Bell who was living in the house, and then the partners. Fourteen people, all portraits in a relatively small painting, so it was a lot of work. He refers to an offshoot of this painting in his letters- new canvas with a very “quick brush”. It’s very loose, the people in the painting can’t even be identified. He describes a sea of cotton on the table, drawn much quicker in a manner he considered “better art”. This term “better art” indicates quite a bit. In fact, this painting was the first impressionist work. His eyes were too sensitive to paint outside, he can’t paint the port like he would like to, he can’t paint the black women with the white babies in their arms against the white columns of the Esplanade houses. He writes all this! The sunlight is just too harsh for his eyes, so he is restricted to painting inside. This is where he applies paint to canvas, and where he really develops his skill after all of the misfortunes that had happened to him. Out of lemons comes lemonade. Now he has his energy back! He is eager to return to Paris and then the art world will be forever changed. The realist movement will be something like the art world has never seen before, which of course became impressionism.
The letters tell us quite a bit. He spent a considerable amount of time in the household here. He painted his brother playing the piano and three of his female cousins singing and entertaining each other. It was a nightly, after dinner kind of thing. We also know he was in the quarter with his brothers, probably drinking a lot of absinthe! Now I don’t have that on record, we just know from his habit patterns. He loved being here but he missed Paris. So he decides to leave on schedule, but he misses the train! Which was typical of him, this was his way of life. But he misses it for a reason, and that’s when he started to work on the cotton office painting. He sees this as what some call his “American subject”. The paper had written about the defunct office, and one of his brothers is depicted reading the paper in the painting. We speculate that he is reading about the dissolution of the office. Degas was a visionary with a sense of humor, so I think he left these little nuggets for us. The painting is the only record of a post-Civil War workplace that had existed before the war. Now with the loss of free labor, things are evolving, cotton isn’t as easy as an industry as it used to be.
Estelle, his blind female cousin, was a young débutante in New Orleans. When she was 18 years old in 1862, she married Joseph Davis Balfour, the nephew of Jefferson Davis, who was President of the Confederacy at that time. So effectively the family married into the President’s family! They were very proud, this was a great honor, so of course they invested all their money in Confederate war bonds. Big mistake. Degas’ father in France, invested all of his money in Confederate war bonds. So of course there’s a financial collapse that affects families on both sides of the Atlantic. Balfour was a lieutenant in the Confederate army and was killed in battle in Mississippi 10 months after his wedding. The family left and went to Paris for the remainder of the war. Edgar saw Estelle while she was there, saw that she was deeply grieving and painted her in the woods. He commented “this is the face that a dying man remembers of his wife as he’s dying”. I like to have photos of everybody, but we didn’t have one of Balfour until about a year and a half ago. Because of the increased content of the web, someone in the Buisson family sent us a copy of an account of exactly how he died. He got off his horse with “much gallantry”, took a musket shot to the “bowel”, which is not a term we’d even use now, went to the shady side of the house, sat down, and bled out. It’s heartbreaking because they had just got married. But in this newspaper cut-out, there was a photo of him! We digitally enhanced and enlarged it, and the girls on staff said “oh my gosh he was hot!” He’s a 21 year old guy in uniform. What I want to do now is bring them back together. Of course he never saw the painting of Estelle, and she never saw the paper. I want to bring them together, at least visually. So that’s a project we have going on, and we’re trying to determine how do we can do that tastefully and romantically.
I think it was very mixed. He lived here, along the creole boulevard. Of course he spent time in the French Quarter, where most people were still speaking their native tongue, whether it was Italian or French or German or any other language. Even though he didn’t speak much English, he was able to get along because he was in a French-speaking household. I think at this time the city was perhaps predominantly French, but still very European. Immigrants had been coming over for quite some time. It was a well-established city by the 1870s. I think he would’ve been comfortable. We assume there were dinner parties in the neighborhood, and we can guess who he was hanging out with.
He lived in a predominately French city, that had already been Americanized to the point that Americans were considered “capitalistic”. His uncle, Michel Buisson, was one of the capitalists even though he was French creole. He was the head of the household, and was really moving up in society. He was Michael by day, and Michel by night. He built a house at Coliseum and Third in the Lower Garden District, which indicates that he was very successful and was trying to become more of an American. Of course, losing money with the Confederate war bonds really made an impact on his life. He never recovered from that, both financially and emotionally. He was Postmaster General of New Orleans, and President Zachary Taylor offered to make him Postmaster General of the US. However, he declined because he wanted to stay in the Cotton business and be in New Orleans.
Now Degas goes back to France triumphantly because he had found this new style of painting, and he can’t wait to get the guys together and push it forward. In his letters we can see that he’s considering starting a family, he’s looking over his whole life and trying to figure it out. He’s a 38 year old painter, who was a little bit popular in Paris, and he’s going blind. He was in a little bit of a panic. His time here really served him well, being in a different place with his family. He talks about how loving the household was.
His brother ended up marrying his cousin Estelle. She didn’t realize that the neighboring woman who was helping her was also sleeping with her husband René. It got very complicated. The woman’s name was America Derive Ollivier and she lived four houses back on Tonti Street. America was married to Judge Ollivier, who was having the same problems as Michel Buisson- dealing with life in the new South. They didn’t have the right to bear arms, they lost all their money, they lost the right to vote, they lost social standing, it was a new world! Carpetbaggers were coming in buying up property for nothing, just to put money in the pockets of the old Confederates. The Judge was at City Hall trying to work this all out, and America was one of many women who was just neglected. She’s here in the household working, she’s around René, they end up having an affair, and later they elope in 1878. René abandons his family here, five kids and his blind wife.
So that’s another thing I think Edgar takes away from New Orleans, he never marries! In his first letters from here he talks about how family can be a good thing, having a wife and “good children”. But later, I think he sees this going on and changes his mind.
Right now I think we’re at a turning point. We’ve gotten here by way of Katrina, where things had been destabilized, but now we’re moving into the next layer of growth. Part of the growth includes opening up for corporate events. We’re also going build a parking lot, and we hope to put an art museum. I hope we can acquire the self-portraits of Degas from the pre-impressionist period. Degas produced over 3000 paintings in his lifetime, not including drawings and sculpture. There is no single depository of Degas, because his artwork is spread all over the world! I see that as a plus, because instead of there being one place in Paris where all work is pushed up against each other and out of context, there is an opportunity to create something special in New Orleans. I hope to create a repository for his work, to build an archive and a library, an art and community center, and hopefully open a French bistro one day. We have a good collection already started. I hope we become the only place in the world that does Degas 24/7/365. We need to take it to the next level to better educate the public, even indirectly. So if you come here for a party, you can still learn something by looking at what’s on the wall.
I want people to understand a little bit about impressionism in general and about Degas in particular. This guy led a privileged life at first, and then he ran into problems. Eye problems, problems with women, problems with challenging the French government, etc. I would also want people to know what motivated him, because he had all this talent but actually fully developed it when he wasn’t living high anymore. So maybe there’s a lesson there.
I also think I would want them to know that New Orleans played an integral part in his life, and that for him, impressionism began here. I think people should walk away knowing that he was human, he was an emotionally frail human being like most of us are. You know he put his pants on one leg at a time like all of us, but he had this tremendous talent. He didn’t always survive, but he thrived on the pain that drove him towards the next phase of his life. And that’s pretty remarkable!
From here, Degas became much more prolific. To say he was just an impressionist is to sort of marginalize his talent. This guy was so talented, so far ahead of the time with what he was trying to accomplish. We even see him experimenting with photography. He has so many preparatory drawings, he really loved to draw! I have to make a point of saying that without the French, this project would never have happened. They brought me in with open arms, and helped me join the French-American Chamber of Commerce. The support of the Alliance Française of New Orleans, the Consulate General of France in Louisiana, and of the delegations that I met in Paris really made it happen. They knew Degas, I just had to be brought along learn who this guy was. We say Degas lives here, that his spirit is still in New Orleans. But we never would’ve got to this point without the help, encouragement, and access granted by the French. Henry Loiret opened up the Musée d’Orsay archives and gave me two translators, and I later realized they were Degas scholars in their own right!
The French people know their culture and value it so highly. I’m very grateful to the French, and I’m very sensitive to what they want for the future of Degas House as well. It’s not just my vision. Some projects are bigger than the individuals involved.