The impressionist style was incompatible with Degas' meticulous paint handling and premeditated method of composing, and he preferred "independent" or "realist" to "impressionist" as the name of the movement. Degas did help establish and direct the impressionist organization, however, and participated in seven of the eight exhibitions. He selected insistently modern themes -- ballet dancers, laundresses, prostitutes, cafés and café-concerts, and racetracks -- and depicted them in numerous variations. One other recurring genre was portraiture. Degas selected family and friends as models rather than paint commissioned portraits, and his portraits are often unconventional characterizations. This portrait of Estelle Musson Balfour de Gas, the artist's first cousin and sister-in-law, was painted during Degas' 1872-1873 visit to New Orleans.
The 1871 discovery of the deterioration of his own vision sensitized the artist to Estelle's near-blindness when he visited the next year. Posture, gesture, accessories, and activities were often used by Degas to characterize the models in his portraits. Such incidental details were deliberately omitted here, a similarly informative decision. The soft focus of the painting, subdued and nearly monochromatic color harmonies, and Estelle's unfocused gaze parallel her limited visual capacity and indicate the artist's respect for Estelle and compassionate understanding of her situation.
lower right with atelier stamp: Degas
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas [1834-1917], the artist, Paris; (Degas atelier sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 6-8 May 1918, no. 97); purchased by Jacques Seligmann [1858-1923], Paris, for his private collection; (Seligmann sale, American Art Galleries, New York, 27 January 1921, no. 51); purchased by (M. Knoedler & Co., London, New York, and Paris); sold 1921 to Henry D. Hughes, Philadelphia; on consignment with (Marie Sterner Galleries); sold 10 November 1928 to Chester Dale [1882-1962], New York; bequest 1963 to NGA.
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