About Marie-Celestine Musson
[Edgar] Degas in New Orleans
For Degas, who liked to call himself a fils de Louisiane, the American journey was a homecoming of sorts. His mother, Celestine Musson Degas, had been born in New Orleans into a prominent Creole family. Over the centuries, "Creole" has meant many different things. For the Degas-Musson family it meant that Celestine was descended from some of the original French and Spanish settlers of New Orleans. Her mother's name, Rillieux, was also familiar in the free black community of New Orleans; this book is the first to reveal the intimate and hitherto unsuspected connections between the black and white branches of the family.
Celestine's father, Germain Musson, had fled his native Haiti (the French colony of Saint-Domingue) after the triumph of Toussaint L'Ouverture's revolutionary forces in 1804, and made a fortune in Louisiana cotton and Mexican silver. At the corner of Canal Street and Royal, where the French Quarter joins the newer commercial or "American" sector, Musson erected, in 1825, an imposing commercial building of New England granite. In its shadow occurred some of the most explosive mass meetings of the Reconstruction period.
Maria Desiree Musson, Degas's maternal grandmother, died suddenly in 1819, at the age of twenty-five. The architect Benjamin Latrobe, who was then working in New Orleans, wandered by chance into her funeral Mass at the St. Louis Cathedral. "The Church was filled with her friends," he noted, "each of whom carried a lighted taper, and the service was long & loud." Grief-stricken, Germain took his children, including Celestine and her older brother Michel, back to France to be educated. There Celestine fell in love with her neighbor, a young banker called Auguste Degas; it was said that their romance bloomed in the garden between their houses.
Celestine was eighteen when they married, during the summer of 1832. Her father's sale of a young slave girl in New Orleans boosted her already respectable dowry. At the birth of her eldest child, Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas, in 1834, she had not yet reached her twentieth birthday. To celebrate the birth, and to link his eldest son to the "mother country," Edgar Degas's father arranged that a house in New Orleans, a Creole cottage on North Rampart Street, be purchased in the newborn's name.
Meanwhile, Celestine's brother Michel Musson acquired a European education--he was a classmate of Longfellow's at Gottingen--and returned to New Orleans. Musson was a successful businessman in cotton and insurance until Reconstruction policies, and the worldwide depression of 1873, threw a wrench into his finances. Something of a social chameleon, Musson called himself "Michael" when convenient, and moved freely between the two major parts of New Orleans white society: the old-line French-speaking Creoles, who lived mainly below (or downriver from) Canal Street, in and around the French Quarter; and the more recent "American" settlers in the city, who inhabited the commercial and residential neighborhoods, especially the Garden District, on the "uptown" side of Canal.
For Celestine, however, there was to be no return to her native city. Her marriage was a moody one, built of silences and resentment. Accustomed to the social whirl of New Orleans, Celestine complained that in Paris she "passed my life, my youth, next to the hearth, never going even once to a ball, or even to the smallest party. Auguste, who's getting more and more fed up with society, turns a deaf ear to my prayers. There were occasional visitors from Louisiana, like the dashing young sugar-planter and horse-breeder Duncan Kenner. But Celestine would quickly sink back into depression. Years later Degas confided to the poet Paul Valery a painful childhood memory of his parents at lunch:
His [Degas's] mother, vexed by something his father had said, would drum her fingers irritably on the edge of the table, with an "Auguste! Auguste!" His father would sit tight and then, the meal over, sidle through the door, fling a cloak round his shoulders and glide noiselessly downstairs.
Celestine had five children in eleven years, with the youngest, Rene, born in 1845. Two years later, when Edgar was thirteen, Celestine Degas was dead. The early loss of his mother scarred Degas for life. Motherhood, from that time forward, was always associated in his mind--and in some of his greatest paintings--with mourning.
Marie-Celestine Musson's Timeline
July 19, 1834
Paris, Ile-de-France, France
Naples, Naples, Campania, Italy