Degas - The Impressionable Years
Feature | English | USA - France
Production Status: In Development
Genre: Historical Drama/Adventure
Tagline: The early years of Edgar Degas were spent in Paris and Italy, culminating in a forbidden love when he travels to New Orleans to find his Mother's family deep in dishonor, bankruptcy, during the desperate years of the Reconstruction.
Logline: The early years of Edgar Degas were spent in France and Italy with his father's in wealth and privilege, then at a crossroads in his artistic career, Edgar Degas travels to New Orleans in 1872 to rescue his American family, whose cotton business is failing, leaving them on the brink of bankruptcy. While painting the new world, he falls deeply in love with his brother’s blind and strikingly beautiful wife, Estelle. Will Edgar stay in Louisiana and protect his beloved Estelle, or will he return to Paris to pursue his art alone?
Production Company: MediaFusion Entertainment
Writers/Executive Producers: Rory Schmitt & Rosary O'Neill
Producer: Carol Bidault de l'Isle / MediaFusion Entertainment
Similar films: RENOIR & VAN GOGH
Location: Louisiana, USA
Budget: $6 million USD
Raised in Paris, Edgar Degas later visits New Orleans, in order to reconnect with his mother's family and find peace.
What he finds are scandals, oppressive racism, and the never-ending threat of poverty and death. Edgar confronts the scandal of what has happened to his American family, the bankruptcy of his uncle, and the bigamous affair of his brother with his next-door neighbor.
Unable to control his fascination with his stunning and blind sister-in-law, Edgar paints portraits of Estelle in a mad fervor. Their intense love affair kindles his spirit and makes him question everything.
Edgar tries to salvage his family life and find a new direction for his painting and reclaim some meaning in his life. The film exposes the scandal between Edgar and René Degas, which kept them from speaking for ten years. The story explores pivotal events that led Degas to return to Paris with a focused, new direction in his artwork: Impressionism.
Writers'/ Executive Producers' Bios:
Rory O’Neill Schmitt, PhD is an author, photographer, and professor. Raised in New Orleans, Rory pursued her fascination with art with summers in Paris and education in New York City. She studied art history and studio art at Fordham University (BA), and was awarded a Freeman Asia Foundation fellowship to study in Beijing and art therapy at the School of Visual Arts (MA). She earned a Ph.D. at Arizona State University, where she specialized in art education. Her dissertation focused on teaching art interpretations in museums. Rory has worked professionally at Herman Leonard Studio, the International Center for Photography, Cristinerose Gallery, Visual Arts Gallery, and Arizona State University Art Museum. She has published several nonfiction books, replete with her own photography (Arcadia Press), and distinguished articles in scholarly journals (International Journal of Education & the Arts. She works at the University of Southern California’s Bovard College, where she coaches expert faculty.
Rosary Hartel O’Neill, PhD lives in New Orleans and New York City. She is the author of twenty-five plays, most published by Samuel French, Inc. and four published books. A Senior Fulbright Drama Specialist, she has received eight Fulbrights. Other awards include residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland, American Academy in Rome, and the Irish Cultural Center and Cartoucherie Theatre in Paris. In New York City, she is an active member of the Actors Studio, the Players Club and the National Arts Club. In New Orleans, Louisiana, she is Professor Emeritus of Drama and Speech at Loyola University and a member of Louisiana Women in Film and Television. She founded the Southern Repertory Theatre, the premier professional theatre in New Orleans.
NOTE FROM THE WRITER (BOOK AND PLAY):
This screenplay is based on the true events and people of Edgar Degas ill-fated trip to visit relatives in New Orleans during the post-Civil War years, also known as the Reconstruction Era.
Degas is considered one of the world’s most important painters. He was one of the founders of the School of Impressionism, which sought to capture feeling through light and color, and he was a noted master of pastels. His work in Paris reflected his fascination with the female form, especially dancers.
As Founding Artistic Director of Southern Repertory Theatre in New Orleans, O’Neill was asked to write a monologue about Degas in conjunction with a major exposition slated for New Orleans in 1999. The exhibition was entitled "Degas and New Orleans: A French Impressionist in America" and heralded "Franco-Fete" which was a celebration of 300 years of the French presence in New Orleans. For the first time in history, all of the twenty-four paintings that Edgar Degas had painted in New Orleans were on display.
The screenplay by Rosary O’Neill and Rory Schmitt focuses on Degas’ time in Louisiana and is a tale about a stranger, an artist from Europe, who comes to America with the hopes and dreams of confronting a world of opportunity but instead finding the only disaster.
Although Degas himself was not nearly as troubled an artist as the likes of Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Allen Poe, his family was not without scandal and that partly explains why his exploits in New Orleans were anything but advertised.
“The story had been hidden because there was a scandal involved,” Rosary explained. “After Edgar Degas left New Orleans, his brother René left his wife and children, remarried bigamously, and returned to Paris. The Degas men—his brother René and Edgar--abandoned their relatives, the Mussons in post-Civil war New Orleans. The Musson family was so horrified that they changed all the heirs’ names back to the mother’s maternal name which was Musson. On receiving their new names, the children were told never to mention the Degas name again. Name reversion was a traditional Southern custom that still goes on today.”
For approximately one-hundred years, no one knew the Degas story until a tombstone bearing the name “Degas” was uncovered. The grave belonged to a child that had died before the name reversion and this led to the revelation that there are actually about thirty descendants--some white and some black--of Edgar Degas who are still living in New Orleans. The story compelled the historian in Rosary and she began to vigorously research the events, even taking her studies abroad to London and Paris where Degas’ work hangs in the National Gallery and Louvre.
“In pre-Katrina New Orleans, all the records were available and Edgar Degas’ letters in French were kept in the Tulane University Library,” she declared. “Edgar was the only French impressionist painter with an American parent. His father, who owned banks in Naples and Florence, financed the Confederacy and ultimately went broke doing so. Edgar had his then wealthy father’s support to come to Louisiana to check on his father’s investments in his uncle’s cotton business, and to paint. Edgar had romanticized the city for a long time. His mother was from New Orleans and although she had died in Paris when he was 12 years old, her memory still haunted him. He was wistful for her people including his three female cousins – especially ESTELLE, Telle - who looked so much like his mother. The girls had spent four years in Paris with Degas’ family following the New Orleans tradition of protecting women during wartime by sending them to France. Telle, young, beautiful, widowed from a marriage to a Civil War hero, a nephew of the President of the Confederacy, met Edgar and they developed a great and abiding passion in Paris.”
From what Rosary gathered during her investigation, the three female New Orleans cousins had arrived in Paris with plenty of leisure and Edgar escorted them to the opera, the races, the symphony, theatre openings, and luxurious dinners. From them, he heard about New Orleans which, prior to the Civil War, had been as cultured as New York City (first Opera house in the US, the largest city Park, one of the oldest buildings - Ursuline Convent, oldest cathedral - St Louis Cathedral, etc). Painters like Audubon had been discovered in Louisiana and great architects were actively building a mini-Paris.
“In 1872, when Degas arrived in America, artists were pioneers but in France, the chosen were adulated, veritable gods,” O’Neill explains. “Yet, back then, Edgar had not yet ascended in Paris. He was not yet known or regaled as he would become later in life. Through my research, and then my play, I wanted to sense how Edgar felt when he came to New Orleans 140 years ago, at the age of 38. I went to Esplanade Avenue, to the house which is still standing, eleven blocks from the French Quarter and stood on the very street where Edgar had lived. The bohemian area exhibits a similar character to the one existing post-Civil War. Essentially, there are still fantastic mansions situated near rundown houses.”
The Degas House is now a bed and breakfast. Most befittingly, her play premiered at the Degas House followed by a performance at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Rosary is candid about the fact that her play, although strongly rooted in history, is a work of fiction. It focused on the concept that Edgar and his married cousin, Telle, may have been secretly in love, although the exact details of their actual relationship remain unknown.
“I found out that Degas’ cousins—the Mussons—had rented the house on Esplanade and this was where Edgar did most of his paintings. His family, which was connected to the highest echelons of the Confederacy, had lost everything including their magnificent Garden District home and their huge plantation upriver. The house on Esplanade might be considered spacious if all the 18 relatives of Edgar’s family and their servants hadn’t been crowded into it. Research showed that the cousin he adored was his married sister-in-law, Telle. All the lustful details of that attraction I have magnified. There was my story.”