This portrait shows Degas's life-long friend, Henri Rouart, whom he met when they attended the elite Lycée Louis le Grand in Paris between 1845 and 1853. After graduation Degas took up the law for a year before beginning to paint, while Rouart joined the military before going into engineering. During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71, Degas, who had volunteered for the army, was a lieutenant under Rouart's command. After the armistice Degas dined at least once a week at Rouart's house. He painted his friend three times, his wife and family more often.
Degas admired Rouart's ingenuity and his involvement with the brand-new field of refrigeration, but he also respected his friend as a connoisseur, an outstanding collector of old-master and nineteenth-century paintings, and an enthusiastic supporter of the Impressionists. Rouart not only bought many of the Impressionists' works and helped to defray their exhibition expenses, but was also a painter himself and participated in seven of the eight Impressionist shows.
In this painting, Degas has portrayed Rouart as a top-hatted industrialist, placing him in front of his factory, with its busy smokestacks and converging railroad lines. These meet at a vanishing point in the center of the painting, somewhere behind Rouart's head. Degas thus ties the sitter's profile to its setting, and the owner to the source of his wealth.