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Degas, The Bellelli Family

Edgar Degas, The Bellelli Family, 1858-67, oil on canvas, 78-3/4 x 98-1/2 inches, 200 x 250 cm (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.
Degas was in his mid-twenties when he painted this canvas. It depicts from left to right, the ten-year-old Giovanna, her mother, the artist's paternal aunt Laura, her younger daughter, Giula age 7, and the Baron Gennaro Bellelli. Preparatory sketches for the painting may have been made in Florence where the family was living—the Baron had been exiled from Naples. The picture may have been completed in Paris.

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Video transcript

(jazz music) Dr. Zucker: We're in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and we're looking at Edgar Degas' first great masterpiece. This is The Bellelli Family. It's actually a portrait of his own relatives. Degas, in his early career, went to Italy a number of times. When he went, he often stayed with his mother's sister, who is portrayed here in black. Dr. Harris: It's interesting to think about Degas in his early 20s first copying art in the Louvre, as a young art student, and then going to Florence and Rome and copying all the great masters. There is something that seems like early Italian Renaissance here, to me, in the way that the figures have a kind of stiffness. Dr. Zucker: But it's also a stiffness that I think is expressive of their social class. Degas' aunt here is married to a baron, the man who's seated, and there is this sense of the formality in their station, especially in a portrait and although this is not a traditional formal portrait, after all, the baron is literally facing away from us, nevertheless there is still a sense of the gravity of their place in the world. Dr. Harris: One could also read that as familial tensions, I think. It's probably all of those things at once. The mother looks out of the painting, past all of the figures. She's dressed in black in mourning for her father, who's pictured in the drawing behind her. Dr. Zucker: Notice how her gaze is perfectly aligned with the top of the matting of that red pencil drawing. Look at the young girl in the middle of the canvas. She is locked into the frame of that classical desk. The man is in that heavy, raw, upholstered chair and it's appropriate to his weight. The girl on the much more delicate chair. There really is a way that geometry, in a sense, structures this family. Dr. Harris: Finish talking about that psychological aspect here. Everyone seems to have their role and their psychological space. The mother in that decent way, the child in the center, the younger child who looks like she's not going to be locked in, in a way. Dr. Zucker: No, in fact, look at the way that only one of her feet, in fact only the toes of one foot is touching the ground. Dr. Harris: She's tucked the other leg underneath. Dr. Zucker: That's right, so there is a kind of asymmetry there. Dr. Harris: And there's a kind of distance between the husband and the wife and only the one daughter, who's looking very prim and proper, looks out at us and meets our gaze, but there is that formality and locked in sense that I think is working on class levels and emotional levels and the space of the interior. Dr. Zucker: You said something about how we see here and how the gaze works here and how vision works here. I think that that's really important, the fact that the figures are really not looking at each other, with the possible exception of the father gazing at his daughters and the one daughter gazing at us. Then, in the upper right corner, you've got a reflection in the mirror over the mantle. Is that a window, is that another framed mirror, is that a painting, and this notion of what it means to look and the complexity and the reflection of looking itself. The painting is, I think, a really early and important and ambitious essay, not only on intimacy or lack of intimacy, not only on social station, but also on what it means to create a painting that is about the internal relationships, through vision, amongst these family members. Dr. Harris: I see it also as something that we see as a thread through Degas, paintings that look very spontaneous and natural, but which are carefully composed with a real sense of geometric order. Dr. Zucker: It feels incredibly rigorous, doesn't it? Dr. Harris: It does, and the colors are just, the blue ... Dr. Zucker: Oh, it's gorgeous. Dr. Harris: Yes. (jazz music)