Degas, Edgar: Bellelli Family (1858-60)

The Independent's Great Art series

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.

The artist

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory