The Artist's Cousin, Probably Mrs. William Bell (Mathilde Musson, 1841–1878)
Edgar Degas (French, Paris 1834–1917 Paris)
Pastel on green wove paper, now darkened to brown
18 5/8 x 15 1/8 in. (47.3 x 38.4 cm)
H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 817
The sitter for this likeness is thought to be Mathilde Musson, one of Degas’s cousins in New Orleans. Degas made a number of pictures featuring Mathilde and her two sisters when he visited the family during the fall and winter of 1872–73. The women can be difficult to tell apart, but the tilt of the head and the intelligent, sidelong gaze seen here closely resemble the figure of Mathilde in another, more finished pastel (Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen). Mathilde was then a new mother, and the artist complained, "to make a cousin sit for you who is feeding an imp of two months is quite hard work."
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower right): Degas / 1873
Edmond Taigny, Paris (until about 1896; sold probably 1896 for Fr 10,000 through Alphonse Portier to Havemeyer); Mr. and Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, New York (about 1896–his d. 1907); Mrs. H. O. (Louisine W.) Havemeyer, New York (1907–d. 1929; cat., 1931, pp. 128–29, ill.)
New York. M. Knoedler & Co. "Loan Exhibition of Masterpieces by Old and Modern Painters," April 6–24, 1915, no. 40 (as "Portrait").
New York. Grolier Club. "Prints, Drawings and Bronzes by Degas," January 26–February 28, 1922, no. 109 (as "La cousine de l'artiste").
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The H. O. Havemeyer Collection," March 10–November 2, 1930, no. 144 (as "Portrait of the Artist's Cousin") [2nd ed., 1958, no. 122].
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Degas in the Metropolitan," February 26–September 4, 1977, no. 15 (of works on paper, as "Madame René de Gas (Estelle Musson, the Artist's Cousin)").
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Splendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection," March 27–June 20, 1993, no. A204.
Paul Jamot. Letter to Josephine McCarrell Lansing. August 31, 1929, sees a resemblance between the sitter in this pastel and in the painting "La Femme à la potiche (Estelle Musson)" (L305; Musée d'Orsay, Paris).
"The H. O. Havemeyer Collection." Parnassus 2 (March 1930), ill. p. 6, as "Portrait of the Artist's Cousin".
H. O. Havemeyer Collection: Catalogue of Paintings, Prints, Sculpture and Objects of Art. n.p., 1931, pp. 128–29, ill., identifies the sitter as perhaps Estelle Musson.
P[aul]. A[ndré]. Lemoisne. Degas et son œuvre. [reprint 1984]. Paris, [1946–49], vol. 1, p. 76; vol. 2, pp. 162–63, no. 319, ill., identifies the sitter as Estelle, and calls it a study for the pastel "Femme assise près d'un balcon (Mme René de Gas)," (Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen), which he dates 1872–73, suggesting that Degas may have been referring to that work when he wrote from New Orleans on November 27, 1872, that he had "spoiled a large pastel".
Louisine W. Havemeyer. Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector. New York, 1961, pp. 260–61, recounts the purchase of this pastel from Taigny through the art dealer Pottier [sic for Portier] in the presence of Mary Cassatt, for Fr 10,000 ($2,000); quotes Cassatt's opinion that it is "one of the greatest portraits Degas ever painted. His cousin sat for it and it is like a primitive".
Jean Sutherland Boggs. Portraits by Degas. Berkeley, 1962, pp. 40, 93 n. 80, p. 109, finds the sitter's eyes "too alive and responsive to be those of" Estelle, who was blind, and tentatively identifies this picture and the Ordrupgaard pastel as portraits of Mathilde; erroneously calls Mathilde the youngest Musson sister in the text, but gives her correct life dates in the index of sitters (1841–1878); notes that Degas did paint Mathilde, citing a letter he wrote to Tissot on November 19, 1872 [the letter states: "To make a cousin sit for you who is feeding an imp of two months is quite hard work"; Mathilde had a 2 month old son; published in Marcel Guerin, ed., "Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas Letters," Oxford, 1948, p. 19].
James B. Byrnes inEdgar Degas: His Family and Friends in New Orleans. Exh. cat., Isaac Delgado Museum of Art. New Orleans, 1965, pp. 38–39, 43, fig. 9, notes that the Ordrupgaard pastel is generally agreed to be a portrait of Mathilde Bell and that ours may be a study for it; also identifies a pencil drawing (collection Carol Selle, New York) as a portrait of Mathilde and calls it "certainly a study for the Copenhagen pastel"; compares these to photographs and portraits of Estelle, observing "except for the eyes it is not too difficult to understand why there has been so much confusion about the identity of the portraits of the artist's two cousins".
Ronald Pickvance. "Degas at New Orleans and a Drawing in Sweden." Connoisseur 161 (March 1966), p. 205, notes the close resemblance of the sitter and her pose in another pastel (Göteborg Konstmuseum, Sweden) to those in the MMA, Ordrupgaard and Selle works; observes that the pattern of the ironwork balcony in the Ordrupgaard pastel is clearly that shown in a photograph of the Musson house; cautions that "identification of the sitter in all these drawings must await more conclusive evidence from either photographs or documents".
Fiorella Minervino inL'opera completa di Degas. Milan, 1970, p. 102, no. 351, ill.
Theodore Reff. "Degas: A Master among Masters." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 34 (Spring 1977), p. , fig. 34 (color), compares it to Maurice Quentin de La Tour's pastel portraits and identifies the sitter as Estelle.
Charles S. Moffett and Elizabeth Streicher. "Mr. and Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer as Collectors of Degas." Nineteenth Century 3 (Spring 1977), p. 25, fig. 5, identify the sitter as Estelle.
Frances Weitzenhoffer. "The Creation of the Havemeyer Collection, 1875–1900." PhD diss., City University of New York, 1982, pp. 259–60, fig. 84, as "Mme René De Gas (Estelle Musson)," 1873.
William R. Johnston. The Nineteenth Century Paintings in the Walters Art Gallery. Baltimore, 1982, p. 134, under no. 151, comments that the sitter in this portrait and the Ordrupgaard pastel is now believed to be Mathilde.
Philippe Brame and Theodore Reff. Degas et son oeuvre: A Supplement. New York, 1984, p. 70, under no. 65, identify the sitter as Mathilde.
Gary Tinterow inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1984–1985. New York, 1985, p. 30, calls it a portrait of Estelle; finds the origin of the pose in Degas' 1869 drawing of Yves Gobillard-Morisot (MMA 1985.48).
Frances Weitzenhoffer. The Havemeyers: Impressionism Comes to America. New York, 1986, pp. 115, 255, pl. 69, identifies the sitter as Estelle, and dates the Havemeyers' purchase of this work to the second half of the 1890s.
Denys Sutton. Edgar Degas: Life and Work. New York, 1986, pp. 70, 97, pl. 52, identifies the sitter both as "one of his cousins or his sister-in-law, Estelle" [p. 70] and as probably Mathilde [p. 97].
Horst Keller. Edgar Degas. Munich, 1988, pp. 53, 173, fig. 30, as a portrait of Estelle.
Marilyn R. Brown. "The DeGas-Musson Papers at Tulane University." Art Bulletin 72 (March 1990), p. 128 n. 98, quotes from letters between Michel and Henri Musson (Degas' uncles in New Orleans and Paris), dated 1879–81, mentioning a portrait of Mathilde, possibly this picture.
Jean Sutherland Boggs and Anne Maheux. Degas Pastels. New York, 1992, pp. 11, 171 n. 5-2, fig. 1, as "Woman on a Balcony"; identify the sitter as Estelle or Mathilde in the text and as Estelle in a footnote; relate the unfinished sketch of the face on the right to drawings by La Tour.
Louisine W. Havemeyer. Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector. Ed. Susan Alyson Stein. 3rd ed. [1st ed. 1930, repr. 1961]. New York, 1993, pp. 257, 260–61, 337 n. 376, p. 339 n. 388.
Susan Alyson Stein inSplendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1993, p. 220.
Gretchen Wold inSplendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1993, pp. 326–27, no. A204, ill.
Christopher Benfey. Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable. New York, 1997, pp. 92–93, identifies the sitter as Mathilde; considers Degas' description of his cousin sitting for a portrait while feeding a two-month old baby a probable reference to the Ordrupgaard pastel [p. 96; see Ref. Boggs 1962].
Jean Sutherland Boggs inDegas et la Nouvelle-Orléans. Exh. cat., Ordrupgaard. Copenhagen, 1999, pp. 17, 19–20, 22, fig. 8 (color), calls it probably a portrait of Mathilde and dates it 1872–73; notes that Degas used pastel rather than oil for Mathilde's portraits to better evoke changing and ephemeral sensations; suggests that Michel Musson requested the Ordrupgaard pastel from Degas after Mathilde's death [see Ref. Brown 1990]; finds a suggestion of defiance in this picture, describing her face as more "précise," mature, and authoritative than in the Ordrupgaard pastel; interprets Mathilde's simple dress and slight smile as conveying supreme self-confidence.
Marilyn R. Brown inDegas and New Orleans: A French Impressionist in America. Exh. cat., New Orleans Museum of Art. New Orleans, 1999, p. 96 n. 98.
Jean Sutherland Boggs inDegas and New Orleans: A French Impressionist in America. Exh. cat., New Orleans Museum of Art. New Orleans, 1999, pp. 198–99, 204, 206, fig. 95 (color), dates it 1872–73; calls it a more authoritative and commanding variation of the Ordrupgaard pastel.
This is one of four related works by Degas, all showing the same sitter in virtually the same pose. The largest and most elaborate of these is a pastel showing a woman seated on the left, with a balcony in the right background (Odrupgaard, Copenhagen; L318). Another, less highly finished, pastel is a cropped view of just the figure (Göteborg Konstmuseum, Sweden). A drawing in pencil and colored chalk also shows just the figure (1872; collection of Carol Selle, New York).
Degas spent the winter of 1872–73 in New Orleans, staying with his maternal uncle Michel Musson. Living in the same house were Musson's three grown daughters, Degas' cousins Desirée (1838–1902), Mathilde (Mrs. William Bell, 1841–1878), and Estelle (Mme René de Gas, wife of the artist's brother, 1843–1909). The sitter for our pastel was previously identified as Estelle, who was blind, but her eyes appear too animated [see Refs. Boggs 1999].