The Bellelli Family (1858-67) by Edgar Degas
Interpretation of Realist Portrait Painting

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The Bellelli Family
By Degas.
Regarded as one of the
greatest modern paintings of
the nineteenth century.

The Bellelli Family (1858-67)


Analysis of The Bellelli Family
Explanation of Other Modern Portraits


Name: The Bellelli Family (1858-67)
Artist: Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Type: Portrait art
Movement: Academic art
Location: Musee d'Orsay, Paris

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).


The classically trained Degas, like his Impressionist friend Edouard Manet (1832-83), was a frequent visitor to the Louvre Museum where he spent hours copying works by the Old Masters. Also like Manet, he was a man of independent means and travelled to Italy in order to experience the paintings of the Italian Renaissance at first hand. It was during his stay in Florence that he painted The Bellelli Family, a highly accomplished figure painting for such a young artist. Interestingly, the picture did not leave Degas' studio until a year or so before his death, when he gave it to his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) for safe-keeping. It was bought in 1918 by the French Nation for 400,000 francs. Painted essentially in an academic style, it bears little resemblance to Degas's later Impressionist portraits of dancers and working women, although it has the Degas "freeze-frame" look - as if the subjects were captured in a photographic snapshot. For more background, please see: Realism to Impressionism (1830-1900).

NOTE: Important works by Degas include: Race Horses in front of the Stands (1866-8), The Ballet Class (1871-4), Absinthe (1876), Portraits at the Bourse (1879), Women Ironing (1884), and Woman Combing Her Hair (1887-90).

Analysis of The Bellelli Family

This work - undoubtedly one of Degas' greatest portrait paintings - features four of his relatives, namely: his Aunt Laura (his father's sister), her Italian husband Gennaro Bellelli (1812-64), and their two daughters Giovanna (left) and Giula (right). Originally Degas intended to do a portrait of Aunt Laura alone, but in the end he collected and grouped together on a single immense canvas all the separate portraits for which he had previously made studies. It was probably conceived as an exhibition item, a suggestion supported by its unusually large format (79 x 98 inches; 200 x 250 cm). The basic drawing and sketching for the portrait was done while Degas was staying with the family in Florence in 1858-9 when studying paintings at the Uffizi and also during a shorter return visit in 1560. These preparatory works included pastel drawings, oil sketches and a number of pencil drawings. The picture was completed later, following Degas' eventual return to his Paris studio.



The portrait is organized very deliberately, with each member of the family seemingly isolated in their own space. Everyone faces in different directions, with only one looking towards the viewer. The figures of the two daughters, both dressed in black dresses and white pinafores, are turned towards the viewer, while their mother adopts a threequarters pose and a dignified but unyielding expression. She is wearing a black dress in mourning for her father, Hilaire Degas, who has recently died and whose face appears in the framed portrait on the wall behind her. She stands with one hand resting maternally on the shoulder of Giovanna who stands by her side. Her other daughter Giulia, sits on a small chair in the centre of the composition, mid-way between her mother and her father. The latter - an Italian nationalist journalist exiled from Naples by the Austrian authorities following the failed Revolution of 1848 - sits apart from his wife and daughters with his face in profile and his back to the viewer. His physical detachment from the others is Degas' way of representing the marital discord within the Bellelli household. He is framed by a mantelpiece as well as a large mirror which reflects part of the room, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez. On a lighter note, Degas includes a brief glimpse of the family dog (bottom right) who is astutely heading south.

In correspondence, Degas acknowledges several influences in the creation of The Bellelli Family, namely works by the Florentine master Botticelli, the lyrical Venetian painter Giorgione, and the Flemish portraitist Anthony van Dyck. Other sources of inspiration may include the portrait of Anne of Cleves (1539) by Hans Holbein; portraits by Ingres, such as Monsieur Bertin (1832); the Family of Charles IV (1800-1) by Francisco Goya; A Man of Property (c.1850) by Honore Daumier; and After Dinner at Ornans (1848) by Gustave Courbet. Note also the intricate designs of the wallpaper and floor covering, reminiscent of the wonderful school of Flemish painting of the late-14th and 15th century.

Explanation of Other Modern Portrait Paintings

Olympia (1863) by Manet.
Musee d'Orsay.

Family Reunion (1867) by Frederic Bazille.
Musee d'Orsay.

Portrait of Emile Zola (1868) by Manet.
Musee d'Orsay.

Portrait of Berthe Morisot With Violets (1872) by Manet.
Musee d'Orsay.

Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882) by John Singer Sargent.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Young Woman Sewing (1886) by Mary Cassatt.
Musee d'Orsay.


• For analysis of other modern portraits, see: Homepage.

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