Today, My Daily Art Display looks at a painting by a French Impressionist painter who, to me, is synonymous with paintings and sculptures of young ballet dancers. His name is Edgar Degas who was actually born Hilaire-Germain Edgar De Gas in 1834. He was in the forefront of the Impressionism movement although he preferred to be labelled as a realist painter. He worked on today’s featured painting between 1858 and 1867. It is entitled Family Portrait or The Bellelli Portrait and is a masterpiece of Degas’ youth. It is a deeply insightful family portrait, in which we observe four people, two adults and two children who are the family Bellelli.
Degas had a traditional École des Beaux-arts education in Paris and in 1856 travelled to Italy to continue his studies and the following year visited his grandfather, Hilaire Degas, in Naples. He also spent time in Rome where he set about copying the work of the Renaissance Masters. In 1858 he received an invitation from his aunt, Laura Bellelli, née De Gas, to visit her and her family in Florence and at the same time to take the opportunity to study the paintings in the city’s prestigious gallery, the Uffizi. He jumped at the chance and so went to stay with the family. The head of the household was Laura’s husband, Gennaro, who had been a political journalist as well as a fervent supporter and good friend of Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, a leading figure in the movement towards Italian Unification. When in 1854 the revolution against the Austrians failed, Gennaro was forced to flee from Italy to escape persecution by the Austrians over his participation in the failed uprising. He first went and lived in exile in Paris but later returned to Florence.
Degas did not get on well with Gennaro and only remained at their rented house until the arrival of his cousins who had remained in Naples following the death of Degas’ grandfather, Hilaire. Degas’ could sense the tension between Gennaro and his aunt Laura who once she confided in Degas about her relationship with her husband and her uncertain future saying:
“…my husband is “immensely disagreeable and dishonest… Living with Gennaro, whose detestable nature you know and who has no serious occupation, shall soon lead me to the grave….”
Part of the problem was that this exile in Florence separated her from her family back in Naples and to make matters worse, Laura was once again pregnant. It is thought that the constant tension between her and her husband led to the death of the child in infancy and this tragic loss only added to the bitterness between husband and wife. It was with this lack of domestic happiness in mind that Degas started this family portrait.
Before us we see the four members of the Bellelli family, Gennaro, his wife Laura, the sister of Degas’ father, and their daughters Giulia and Giovanna. It is known that Degas made many sketches of the family before returning to Paris to work on the painting.
We see Laura dressed in mourning for the recent death of her father, and Degas’ grandfather, Hilaire, and in the background we can see a framed portrait of him. Looking closely at how Degas has depicted his aunt. We see a very dignified woman with a very stern countenance. She stands upright as if posing for an official picture. She coldly averts her gaze away from her husband. Her right hand rests protectively on the shoulder of her elder and favourite daughter, Giovanna. Degas’ two young cousins are depicted with their mother, and are also dressed in mourning, in their black dresses and white pinafores. Giulia half sits on a small chair at the centre of the painting, arms akimbo, as she looks towards her father and in some ways forms a link between the two estranged adults. Degas was very taken with his cousins describing them:
“….The elder one was in fact a little beauty. The younger one, on the other hand, was smart as can be and kind as an angel. I am painting them in mourning dress and small white aprons, which suit them very well…I would like to express a certain natural grace together with a nobility that I don’t know how to define….”
Note how Degas has positioned the husband and wife far apart in the painting, which was probably an acknowledgement of the tension between the couple and how the two had drifted apart. There is no feeling of togetherness about the family. The father sits in an armchair at his desk next to the fireplace, where he had been reading or writing a letter. He has his back to us but his head is turned towards his daughter. He appears unmoved and uncaring, showing little interest in what is going on around him. His body is framed by a mantelpiece on which we see an ornate clock, some plates and a candlestick. Over the mantelpiece there hangs a large mirror and in the mirror we see reflections of the room which in some way open up the space and fills it with more light. We see reflections in the mirror of a curtained window, a chandelier and a framed painting.
It is interesting to look at how Degas has seemed to separate the husband from the rest of the family by a vertical separation formed by the leg of the table, the candlestick and the vertical side of the fireplace and mirror. Just behind his chair, on the floor, we catch a glimpse of the family’s pet dog. The drawing which we can see hanging on the wall behind Laura is a portrait of the recently deceased Hilaire Degas, which his grandson had drawn. It is more than likely that Degas positioned this small picture where he did so as to give a sense of connection between the various generations of the Degas family.
Laura must have been appalled that Degas had to stay in a household, which exuded such unhappiness. It is believed that Laura married Gennaro in desperation because her father had not been satisfied with any of her previous suitors and she was still unmarried at the “ripe old age” of 28. She was extremely unhappy in her marriage and once shared her misgivings with Degas. According to the American biographer and art historian, Theodore Reff, who wrote about a letter from Laura to her nephew, in his book , Degas: The Artist’s Mind . In the letter she wrote:
“…You must be very happy to be with your family again, instead of being in the presence of a sad face like mine and a disagreeable one like my husband’s…”
It is thought that this family portrait was not to be a gift to the family but a work of art which he wanted to exhibit at the Paris Salon. Whether he ever did that is uncertain but many believe he put it forward for exhibition at the Salon in 1867. Degas kept hold of the painting until 1913 when he gave it to his art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, for him to sell. In 1918 it was sold to the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris and later the painting was moved to the newly opened Musée d’Orsay where it can now be found.
One should remember that this is not a photograph in which one can detect the mood of the sitters. This is a painting by an artist who has the ability to paint the demeanour of his sitters in whatever way he chooses. So this painting is how Degas views the family life of the Bellelli family. How close it is to realism is known only by Degas and the Bellelli family. So it is up to you to decide whether Laura was a stern and disillusioned matriarch and whether Gennaro was the disinterested and curmudgeonly.