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Thomas Nast and New Orleans
Thomas Nast's Grand Caricaturama
Nast and Degas by Albert I. Boime
Your are in Thomas Nast's contribution to "A Cotton Office in New Orleans"
Nast's Contribution to
"A Cotton Office in New Orleans"
by Albert I. Boime
Degas’ seminal painting of his New Orleans visit, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, owes a conspicuous debt to Nast’s illustrations for Harper’s Weekly.   The perspicacious French critic, Emile Zola, observed that the picture reminded him in part of "a plate from an illustrated journal."
A Cotton Office in New Orleans, by Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans
We know that when Degas was in the United States he read the illustrated newspapers, but Zola could never have guessed, however, that the main source was Nast’s Going Through the Form of Universal Suffrage of November 11, 1871. Nast’s cartoon was part of his relentless assault on Tammany corruption, depicting innocent voters dropping their ballots in to a wastebasket while the Tweed gang loafs cynically behind the table on which it rests.
Going Through the Form of Universal Suffrage
Going Through The Form Of Universal Suffrage
Harper's Weekly, November 11, 1871
The "Cotton Office" was located at 63 Carondelet Street (today it is 407 Carondelet Street) at the corner of Perdido Street. Its actual name was Musson, Prestidge & Company, Cotton Factors and Commissioner Merchants.
Degas included several relatives in the picture. Among them, his uncle, Michel Musson, senior partner of the firm, is seated in the front. His brother, René De Gas, is seated near the center, reading the newspaper; his other brother, Achille De Gas, is the dandy standing at the far left.
The Cotton Office represents Degas’ attempt to capture the informality of American comportment and the casual atmosphere of a busy commercial enterprise. Nast must have fascinated him in this respect, since no one surpassed the cartoonist in catching the physical gestures and informal bearing of his countrymen. Nast’s figures of New York mayor, Oakey Hall, who leans nonchalantly against the wall with one leg crossed over the other, and Tweed, who supports himself by leaning heavily on the table with both arms, provided Degas with the poses both of Achille De Gas and of an unidentified man examining merchandise on the far side of the table.
Both pairs wear identical headgear, a tall silk hat and a derby. Slight variations in the figures are less important than their shared look of idle casualness, and the fact that they occupy analogous stations in their respective medium. Although Degas reversed Nast’s perspectival scheme and set his figures in a different plane, Achille and Mayor Hall stand at the extreme edge of the picture with their respective counterparts flanking them just inside the composition. The diagonal established by the two figures in each instance parallels the wall receding toward the opposite end of the interior. Another link between the two works is the partitioned-off cubicle behind the figures, where a seated man is shown cut off, save for head and shoulders, by the figure leaning on the table who faces in the opposite direction.
Various other details may be compared: the similar location and period-style of the low-back office chair in the left foreground of both pictures, the bystanders in the background, and the curious affinity between the sprawling position of Degas’ brother René reading the newspaper and the careless abandon of Nast’s police guard. Even the affected casualness in the rendering of René’s trousers recalls Nast’s stylistic idiosyncrasies, especially evident in Nast’s drawing of the American ambassador to China seated at the far right in The Youngest Introducing the Oldest.
The Youngest Introducing The Oldest
The Youngest Introducing The Oldest
Harper's Weekly, July 18, 1868
The treatment of orthogonals and abrupt cropping of figures in Cotton Office and Universal Suffrage also reveal striking similarities. While Degas achieves a feeling of immediacy by abruptly segmenting the upper wall planes by the picture plane, Nast arrives at a similar result by gradually fading out the wall surfaces before they reach the edge of the picture. Nast is intent on retaining the integrity of his foreground plane, but his abrupt segmentation of the standing guard by the column at the left may be likened to the seemingly random cropping of Degas’ uncle in the foreground of Cotton Office.  There is a further parallel between Nast’s framing column and what appears to be a jamb and shutter at the extreme left of Degas’ picture.
Still another Nast cartoon supplied Degas with local color for Cotton Office—the Put Yourself in His Place of March 4, 1871. The correspondence between the lefthand portion of Degas’ picture and the cartoon is particularly evident: figures poring over account books with desks in disarray, high stools and messy wastebaskets, all serve to create similar environments. Yet it is not so much the presence of these details as their internal relationships that suggest more than coincidental resemblance. The high stool stands next to a low-back office chair facing toward the left, which in turn faces a table whose style is similar in both cases. Even the wastebasket is analogously located in the two pictures, and it is significant—despite the fact that Degas reveals only the top—that they are made of the same wicker material and braided in large loops at the rim.
Put Yourself in His Place
Put Yourself In His Place
Harper's Weekly, March 4, 1871
While Degas’ painting is in some respects a family portrait, he did not paint it on the spot in his uncle’s firm. The work was the product of a "studio" synthesis. During the final phases of execution, he made use of visual sources that he had gathered during his stay in New Orleans to provide his work with authentic atmosphere and the images of bodily gestures and attitudes that Nast translated so powerfully into graphic terms. Degas’ studio practice typically consisted of the careful processing of eclectic borrowings from a variety of sources including commercial illustration. Yet nothing so aptly discloses the intertextuality of artistic exchange in the nineteenth century than this relationship between a French pioneer of modern painting and an American cartoonist who helped shape the symbolic vocabulary of the native political tradition.

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