This somewhat disquietingly dysfunctional family portrait was made by a young Degas and depicts members of his own extended Italian family. Degas had been born in Paris but his father, Auguste de Gas, was a wealthy Neapolitan banker who headed up the family bank’s Paris branch. In his early 20s Degas left Paris to finish his art studies in Italy where part of his family lived.
This painting was made while Degas was staying in Florence with his aunt, Laure de Gas, the Baroness Bellelli. It presents the baroness, her husband Baron Gennaro Bellelli and their two daughter’s Giulia and Giovanna. Based on this portrait, one could not call them a happy family. The baron was an Italian patriot, banned from Naples, living in exile in Florence. With his back to the spectator peering out through the corner of an eye, he appears closed off and aloof. Dignified, sad and severe in voluminous black, the baroness was in mourning for her father, Hilaire de Gas, who had recently died and whom Degas includes as a red line drawing on the back wall. The two girls, Giovanna and Giula, are seven and ten, but look as encased by their bourgeois trappings as a Velazquez Infanta. Each seems isolated in their own world, all the more so for small disjunctive details, such as this small dog cut off in the lower right corner and the younger daughter who has folded her leg beneath her skirt, suggesting she has not yet been fully restrained by adult conventions.
The picture’s monumental size, simple composition and sober, cool colours all work to create a sense of oppression. The figures seem restrained as if determined to put on a good show for the family portrait; yet there is an unspoken drama playing out between husband and wife, as if the spectator had just walked in during the middle of an argument. This is, of course, the subjective viewpoint of a young, visiting relative; nevertheless, one would suspect that Degas didn’t have that much fun staying with this branch of the family.
Even in this early work, made before Degas met Manet and his avant-garde circle, it is evident that Degas was an exceptional artist. From his study of Old Masters as well as modern painters, including Ingres, he learned a rigorous technique and from this solid foundation developed his own entirely unique style. Even in this pre-Impressionist work, Degas’ characteristic meticulous composition, faultless draughtsmanship, and an expressive use of light are already evident as is a perceptive eye for psychological nuance. This crisp, iconic multiple portrait shows Degas’ knowledge of great artists such as van Eyck, Holbien, Velázquez and Goya as well as Ingres (who supposedly once told Degas to ‘Draw lines, young man, lots of lines….That is how you will become a good painter’). Yet Degas goes beyond that and creates something utterly modern, almost Freudian before the term was invented. There is no contemporary work with which it can be compared. It does however point to Degas’ future work, which would explore with a sharp eye all facets of modern life, from the bourgeois living room to the dance hall and the working class bar.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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1859 Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Bocca Baciata, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
1859 Frederic, Lord Leighton: A Roman Lady, Philadelphia Museum of Art