DEGAS, Young Girl in a White Dress. When I think of the Hood orphans, I think of this painting from Degas's New Orleans work. (This is likely one of his nieces.) I also think of Gillian Welch's song, "Orphan Girl."I have collected nearly 80 different images of the people, places, and situations portrayed in A SEPARATE COUNTRY. Nearly every image--with only two obvious exceptions--was painted, photographed, engraved, or drawn during the period that John Bell Hood lived in New Orleans. Taken together, I hope they provide a fascinating visual introduction to a unique city--a separate country--that was the New Orleans of the 19th century.
This exercise of actively imagining myself within the frame of these images and others inspired me to write many passages--indeed, whole chapters of the book. But none inspired me more than the new Orleans paintings of master impressionist Edgar Degas, who stayed there during the winter of 1872-1873, when he was just on the cusp of fame. His mother was a New Orlenian who had emigrated to France. Consequently, he had many Creole cousins, and when his brother moved to New Orleans and began a family, Degas felt compelled to visit. He was recovering from his time in war, which had left his eyes damaged and extremely sensitive to light. During those months, Degas rested and painted, and developed different ways of presenting the visual world on canvas. It was during this visit that he painted one of his masterpieces (A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873), and many of the techniques he developed during that time became hallmarks of the man who would experience great renown during the Second Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1876.
For me, though, the small paintings and sketches he created in New Orleans, especially of his Musson cousins, are equal to his acknowledged masterpieces. In them are contained the light, the gestures, the ornaments, the lines, and shadows of a Creole world that thrived in ballrooms and high-ceilinged parlors; in them are the black-bearded Creole men of business, by turns laconic and determined; in them are the expressions of joy, anguish, boredom, ferocity, and resolve that must have been common among a people who lived in a pestilent city pinned between a river and a swamp that still rendered moments of heartbreaking beauty. There's no city like it, and I think Degas knew it.
Wit that, I offer these images and captions in the hope that they will invoke the world in which John and Anna Marie Hood lived, loved, and died.