Although Degas is best known as a chronicler of the ballet, portraiture was his primary practice between 1855 and the mid-1870s. In an era before selfies and Instagram feeds, portraits functioned as a form of social media, serving as a record of a moment in time and reinforcing social ties between the sitters and the artist. Degas’s portraits function as a roster of his inner circle, but they also serve as a record of travel, artistic collaboration, and domestic drama. Family members were convenient subjects, and Degas made portraits of his grandfather, parents, and siblings throughout his career.
Degas also had great affection for his cousin Estelle Musson, who married his younger brother, René, in 1869. In Madame René De Gas (1872/3), Estelle gazes off into the distance, her eyes unfocused and her expression dreamy, possibly a reference to Estelle’s failing eyesight, which would eventually lead to complete blindness. Degas had great sympathy for Estelle’s ailment, as he, too, had been diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition only a few years earlier.