Degas, Edgar: Bellelli Family (1858-60)
The Independent's Great Art series
Friday 27 June 2008
The librarian's great distinction, between fiction and non-fiction, doesn't apply to paintings. The best stories often appear in the most factual forms. The nearest pictorial thing to the 19th-century novel is the 19th-century portrait.
In Degas' The Bellelli Family, the main sitters are his aunt, Laura Bellelli, née de Gas, and his Italian uncle, Gennaro Bellelli. With them are their pre-pubescent daughters, Giulia (left) and Giovanna.
On the wall behind there's a fifth family member. It's one of Degas' own drawings, a chalk study depicting Laura's father – and his grandfather – Hilaire de Gas. (Degas had compacted his aristocratic surname to be a proper bourgeois artist.)
The Bellelli family are arrayed in something like a row. But this is a portrait where the facts of the sitting are not taken for granted. No, the way the subjects deal with the predicament of being portrayed, their sitting behaviour, is the way they reveal their characters.
Or at least, that's what the picture pretends. But the scene is too telling to be true. Degas surely has arranged them, and turned the Bellellis into a diagram of family relationships: power, conflict, genetics, upbringing. In his staging and design, he lays them out with an almost fairy-tale clarity.
The mother, Laura, is the dominant figure. She stands severely upright, engulfed in black, head high, face set – and beside her head, half over-lapped, there's that drawing of her father.
This old man's image presides over the group, and his daughter, Laura, faces in the same direction, carrying on the line. Despite the married name, it is the house of de Gas she presents to us.
Her husband, meanwhile, lurks almost out of the frame. So far as it's possible in a picture that shows only a room, he is a man who has retired – or been expelled – to his den.
He won't get up. His body is turned away from the front. Barricaded behind armchair and table, he does the very minimum necessary to appear in his family group – leaning round, peering, offering his profile on sufferance.
Finally, the daughters: what a study in contrasts. Giulia stands, to the picture's side, hands folded, feet together, in her mother's shadow, merely a sub-section of Laura's great dark arch. Giovanna, on the other hand, is centre-stage and independent, half-sitting, hands on hips, one leg tucked up, in a fidgety, show-off pose.
And nobody, you notice, is looking at anybody. Nobody's eyes meet. Nobody is proudly or fondly gazing at spouse or child or sibling. And they don't have the excuse that they're all facing the front. Looks are simply averted.
It makes a difference if you know that there's a sixth family member present – cousin Edgar. Their reluctance to look at him adds a further dimension to the drama. Giulia alone faces out at the viewer/painter – primly, or maybe with a get-me-out-of-here expression?
As for who is her mother's true daughter, Degas points clearly at Giovanna. Look at her face, and at Laura's: it's the same face, the same hair shape and colour, the same expression, the same three-quarter view of the head. A diagonal line of descent passes between these two strong characters, while the two outside characters, Giulia and Gennaro, linked by their reddish hair, are the weaker parties. But what makes it such a true family portrait is that, just looking at it, you find you're taking sides.
The woman is clearly a tyrant. The man is clearly impossible. Giulia is a little miss. Giovanna is a brat. Somebody is to blame and somebody's going to suffer. It's an acute psychological study, not just of the Bellellis, but of the viewer. Ask someone to tell you about Degas' Bellelli Family and they'll tell you all about themselves.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is a much more serious proposition than his old reputation as the Impressionist of human action, doing race meetings in bright livery and blur, graceful ballerinas on the hop in a flourish of tutus, and lively café-concerts. His portraiture and work-scenes have a novelist's sense of how the self is shaped by its social existence. And for making a drama out of the body itself, its strains and toils, as in his bathers and towellers, he is the modern Michelangelo.
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 2 'Fire at every person you see': Israeli soldiers reveal they were ordered to shoot to kill in Gaza – even if the targets may have been civilians
- 3 General Election 2015: 14-year-old boy asks Nick Clegg – 'can you kill Katie Hopkins?'
- 4 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
- 5 YouTube social experiment shows just how easy it is to kidnap a child
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to join show
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 4 - review: Sansa is in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
In defence of liberal democracy
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils