DEGAS, Edgar
(b. 1834, Paris, d. 1917, Paris)

The Bellelli Family

Oil on canvas, 200 x 253 cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Edgar Degas had come to Italy, where part of his family lived, in 1856. In Florence in 1858, he painted his portrait of the Belleli family, which represented his first brush with tradition. He worked on the picture for almost ten years before showing it under the title Family Portraits at the 1867 Salon in Paris, where it passed unnoticed. He did numerous detail studies (faces, hands) and packed the composition with deliberate meaning.

The picture portrays the domestic drama of a family exiled from Naples to Florence, much to the despair of Laura (his seriously depressive cousin) and her irascible husband Gennaro, who had no proper job and whom we see turning almost reluctantly to face his wife and daughters. The youngest, Giulia, sitting on a stool with one leg tucked under her, appears impatient, lending animation to the whole, while in the great tradition of group effigies from the classical era Degas includes a portrait of his grandfather Hilaire Degas, on the wall behind his daughter Laura. Hilaire had just died in Naples (in 1858), hence the dark mourning dress, alleviated only by the girls' pinafores.