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Degas' The Bellelli Family
There's little doubt that the greatest gift an artist can possess is talent. The second greatest gift an artist can have is a rich father. That means the talent need not be harnessed by such mundane tasks as earning one's room and board. And so long as the family ties remain strong and the artist remains in the good graces of the patriarch, that artist can happily paint about whatever he likes. That was certainly the case with Edgar Degas. Until he was forty, when his banker father died, the man never worked a day in his life, at any thing other than his art anyway. And by that time, his name and career were on the verge of becoming well established in the artistic circle of the Impressionists meaning he could count himself a professional artist and continue his low-keyed, solitary lifestyle undisturbed.

When we think of Degas, instantly ballerinas, horse racing, and paintings of the Paris social scene come to mind. But Degas was more than these things. He had a traditional Ecole des Beaux-arts education and even studied in Rome, copying quite successfully the work of Renaissance masters. He returned, a talented portrait painter, to create one of the most deeply insightful family portraits ever painted. The Bellelli Family was painted sporadically over a period of two years from 1858-60. The principal figure in the grouping of a mother, her two daughters, and their father, is that of Laure Bellelli, the sister of Degas father, which would make her Degas' aunt and the two preteen girls his cousins. The scene is that of a mid-century parlour, with a fireplace, mirror, clock, and a framed drawing by Degas of his father on the wall next his aunt. The female figures are dressed primarily in black and all the colours are quite subdued.

What makes the portrait so unique is the extreme care Degas took in composing the work to relate the strained, dysfunctional family relationship involved. The mother's arm rests around the shoulder of her older, favourite daughter while the younger, "devilish" daughter sits on a chair apart from her mother, facing her father and a visible link to him. He sits in a black armchair, his back to the viewer, his profiled face in shadow. Degas contrives a strong, divisional break separating the father from the rest of the family using a table leg, the vertical lines of the fireplace, a candlestick, and the mirror frame. Mrs. Bellelli found her husband (who was an Italian baron) quite disagreeable in that he had no steady job and in fact had been exiled from his native Naples for his political activities. She refuses to meet his gaze in the painting. Like most family situations of this kind, the effect is subtle, perhaps even unnoticed by the casual observer. But it was not lost on the Bellelli family. The painting was not shown publicly until well into this century when all in it were no longer living.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
23 January 1999

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