Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Facts in Fiction: Truth in Estelle, a guest essay by Linda Stewart Henley

Welcome to Linda Stewart Henley, whose novel Estelle, a multi-period novel that focuses on Edgar Degas' stay in New Orleans, is out today.


Linda Stewart Henley

When most people think of Edgar Degas, what comes to mind are images of ballerinas. So when I went to the local library to find books about the artist, I was not surprised to find that most of them turned out to be children’s picture books with reproductions of dancers. But the book I planned to write about Degas wasn’t about those subjects. I wanted to write about him when he was thirty-eight, not yet famous, during his five-month visit to New Orleans to visit French Creole relatives in 1872-73.

I ordered piles of books. Books about Impressionist painters, Creole society in New Orleans, Mardi Gras, the architecture on Esplanade Avenue, Louisiana cooking, and Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel The Awakening. I found few volumes on the subject of Degas’s time in New Orleans until I discovered one absolute gem. It came from AbeBooks and cost an unbelievable ninety-nine cents plus three dollars postage. This book, published by the New Orleans Museum of Art entitled Degas and New Orleans: A French Impressionist in America by Gail Feigenbaum and Jean Sutherland Boggs, proved indispensable in providing facts that I wanted for my novel.

A well-researched and documented catalogue written by curators and art historians to accompany a 1999 exhibit, it provided the threads I needed to tell my tale. As I read essays written by the contributors to the catalogue, I learned not only about Degas’s work but also about his family members, fourteen of them, who lived in New Orleans at the time. Degas’s French Creole mother, who died when he was thirteen, had been born there. Estelle, his cousin, was married to his brother René. This was his first and only visit to America and it had a profound effect on him. While there, he painted portraits of the family, but he thought those unimportant and hardly worth his time until he finished A Cotton Office in New Orleans, a large painting depicting his family’s cotton business, which is considered a masterpiece.

A Cotton Office in New Orleans, Edgar Degas (1873)

Although Estelle is a work of fiction, I tried to build the story around many of the true events surrounding the family’s life and times. Surprising to me was the number of buildings and businesses from Degas’s time that still exist today: Arnaud’s and Antoine’s restaurants, the Café du Monde, and the house on Esplanade Avenue where his family lived.

The lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the French Creoles has long since disappeared and the street with fine buildings fallen into disrepair, but if you walk today along the wide boulevard with its neutral ground in the middle planted with spreading live oaks and magnolias, you can almost hear the streetcar rumbling along the tracks and breathe the air of bygone days. New Orleans is a city you don’t forget. The fact that Degas was there, and painted his family’s portraits, can only add to its allure.


Linda Stewart Henley is an English-born American who moved to the United States at sixteen. She is a graduate of Newcomb College of Tulane University in New Orleans. She currently lives with her husband in Anacortes, Washington. Estelle, her first novel, is published by She Writes Press.

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