DEGAS, Edgar
(b. 1834, Paris, d. 1917, Paris)

The Sufferings of the City of New Orleans

Oil on paper, mounted on canvas, 81 x 147 cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Beside portraiture, Degas's early work was also centred on historical themes drawn from religious tradition or mythology. Between 1860 and 1865 he painted five historical paintings, for which there are several sketches and versions: Young Spartans Exercising, Semiramis Founding a City, Alexander and Bucephalus, Jephthah's Daughter, and The Sufferings of the City of New Orleans.

These paintings are very original and unlike any historical painting in the nineteenth century. They conformed to the rules of classicist composition, but they were also innovative because of the freshness of his figures and the warm colours of his landscapes.

Degas made his Salon debut in 1865 with The Sufferings of the City of New Orleans. To the artist's disappointment, it was given scant attention. It must have seemed anachronistic and artificial; a medieval landscape setting was being used to symbolize the sufferings of the American city of New Orleans, which was occupied by Union troops in 1862 in the course of the Civil War.