The greatest painting ever made by a European master on these shores has as its central figure a man reading a newspaper. It is the New Orleans Picayune and the man is the painter’s brother, René de Gas. In fact, the painter’s uncle, in the left foreground, was a part owner of the paper.
Edgar Degas came to New Orleans in October 1872 in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. During his sixmonth visit he made studies of his many relatives, but his major effort was this painting of the family cotton-brokerage office; he hoped it would find a buyer among the wealthy spinners of Manchester, England. It is considered one of the most important French genre paintings of the nineteenth century.
Degas described his work in a letter of February 18, 1873: ”… there are about 15 individuals more or less occupied with a table covered with the precious material, and two men, one half-leaning and the other half-sitting on it—the buyer and the broker—are discussing a pattern.” Degas’s other brother, Achille, leans against the window at far left.
What might René de Gas have been reading about in that election year 1872? It was Grant versus Greeley, and the Picayune endorsed Greeley. Besides politics there was crime— NINE BODIES FOUND ON A DUMPING GROUND went one headline (they turned out to be discards from a “Museum of Anatomy")—and an editorial—"Taxes! taxes!! taxes!!! Who can now enumerate them or who can much longer pay them.…” Plus ça change …