The year 2023 marks the 150th anniversary of iconic French artist Edgar Degas’ visit to New Orleans and New York. Historian, professor, author and playwright Rosary Hartel O’Neill wrote the play Degas in New Orleans (US/UK), which is centered on this trip. With her co-author, Rory O’Neill Schmitt, Rosary recently completed a nonfiction book titled Edgar Degas in New Orleans, which is being published by Arcadia Publishing in February 2023.
Celebrations of the anniversary of Degas’ trip to New Orleans will be held in both New Orleans and France. Rosary—who is part French, part Irish and a New Orleanian turned New Yorker—also secured a fellowship to the Irish Cultural Center in Paris. In October of 2022, Rosary met with the ambassador to Ireland and the chief curator of the D’Orsay Museum.
Rosary and Rory recently discussed these events and more via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan: What inspired you to write this book about Degas in New Orleans, and how long did it take you to complete?
Rosary Hartel O’Neill (RHO): The continued interest in Edgar Degas and this secret story of him and his New Orleans relatives inspired me and my co-author/daughter, Rory O’Neill Schmitt, PhD, to continue searching for a publisher. Of course, Rory’s background is in art (art history, art therapy and art education degrees). She had tireless enthusiasm to make the story visual and accessible, and to build new knowledge through research and amassing more information from contemporary top scholars. I guess my daughter’s belief in the story and determined efforts helped us find the perfect publisher, Arcadia Publishing. Our publisher’s high standards and the continued enthusiasm of our editor, Joe Gartrell, each week kept us boosted up. Degas was such a driven, hardworking artist, who helped his relatives in New Orleans and France. His story needs telling.
How did you find the publisher?
Rory Schmitt (RS): We connected with our publisher, History Press & Arcadia Publishing, who had published three of our prior books: New Orleans Voodoo (2019), Navajo and Hopi Art in Arizona (2016), and New Orleans Carnival Krewes (2014). This publisher specializes in books about American history, and we thought this would be a perfect fit for our story.
What was the most interesting thing you learned over the course of your research?
RHO: That Edgar believed in duty and honor unequivocally.
RS: Edgar was totally inspired in New Orleans! His brother even described him as “enchanted” by the experience. Edgar wrote to his artist friend from New Orleans, “No art was ever less spontaneous than mine. I only want to see my corner and dig it up religiously. Art does not expand, it condenses.” Living five months with troubled relatives, he observed, sketched, and painted them. The artworks he created, including his early masterpiece, The Cotton Office, continue to have significance today.
How did you get the opportunity to visit Paris to present this book?
RHO: I was awarded a fellowship at the Irish Cultural Center in Paris (I was pleased to be in residence here for the third time). There is great, tireless interest in Degas in Europe. An exposition of his is always going on some time and somewhere in Europe.
You’ve met the Irish ambassador to France in Paris. How did that opportunity come about?
RHO: The Irish ambassador to France, Niall Burgess, has been very kind and supportive. We had the opportunity to visit with his staff at a reception for artists in residence at the Irish Cultural Center, as well as speak with him after mass at the Irish Chapel on the center’s campus. He is very proud of what we’re doing.
You traveled with your daughters (Rachelle O’Brien and Rory O’Neill) and sister (Mary Anderson) on this trip. What were you most looking forward to seeing whilst in France?
RHO: The people, the beauty, which is everywhere reminding me of the importance of being an artist.
RS: Completing research at the D’Orsay Museum was phenomenal. Two of Degas’ New Orleans artworks are on permanent display. Researching for our book in the museum’s library was incredible. We are most grateful for the opportunity to speak with two curators: Curator of Drawings/Conservatrice des Arts Graphiques Dr. Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, and Dr. Isolde Pludermacher, Chief Curator/Conservatrice en chef, who is curating the upcoming 2023 Manet/Degas exhibition.
You also secured a Fulbright Scholarship to visit Germany in 2024. What are you going to present while there?
RHO: I’ll teach American drama and film and my plays, especially Degas in New Orleans.
How many Fulbrights have you been awarded and how many countries have you visited as a result of the program?
RHO: I’m grateful to have received a total of nine Fulbright Awards: three to Germany, five to France, one to Haiti. In 2024, I’ll travel to Germany, courtesy of a Fulbright fellowship.
How do you hope your career evolves over the next five years?
RHO: I hope films will evolve from my work, creating more and more work for artists to make up for all the broken hearts and smashed opportunities caused by Covid.
RS: I look forward to making films, writing more books, and collaborating with other artists. My central interests are visual art, and connecting one another through the shared human experience.
Have you any other interesting projects or events coming up soon?
RHO: We are in preproduction for a film called Degas: The Impressionable Years, with MediaFusion, and we’re working on the film Vampires over Dublin with filmmakers in Ireland. We are participating in film festivals globally (Edinburgh, Scotland in February and Hollywood, Florida in November) with our award-winning short film, Garden District (inspired by my play, Solitaire).
We just published our book of five vampire comedies, Vampire Quintet, whi
ch contains a screenplay, Vampire’s Last Bite, and phenomenal artwork by talented New Orleans artists, Louviere+Vanessa. (Plus, my daughter, Rachelle, an artist and the lead singer of the band Blood Lovely, is on the cover.)
We’re also working on a translation into French of our book, Edgar Degas in New Orleans. And I’m working on a play, called Vampires in Mississippi, with an Actors Studio group. Plays can delve quickly into this conflict and complexities of life, and much can evolve for plays—transformations into film, musicals, books, Zoom reads. The world is now available to us in a fuller way than it ever was before as writers.
Our commitment is to create more and more uplifting work for creatives in America and in Europe, to join hands throughout America and over the oceans to work for the greater good. I have had the great opportunity of working with my brilliant daughters, Rachelle O’Brien and Rory O’Neill Schmitt, and actor-son, Barret O’Brien, on these projects. What more could any artist want? I am grateful to Samuel French and Concord Theatricals for selling my plays throughout the world.
Header Image: Rosary O’Neill, PhD and Rory O’Neill Schmitt in Paris