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Edgar Degas - The Bellilli Family

by Laura Gerstmann

Edgar Degas spent many years completing this family portrait. It is one of his early works, in which he not only combines genre and portrait painting, but also hints at his admiration for painters such as Rembrandt or Van Dyck. 

Depicted is part of Degas' family, which had their residence in Italy: his paternal aunt Laure, for whom he had great admiration, her husband Baron Bellilli and their two common daughters Guila and Giovanna. The family was expelled from Naples because of the patriotic baron's participation in the revolution of 1848 and now lived in exile in Florence. 

Laure stands as a proud wife - her two daughters placed in front of her - in the left half of the picture in juxtaposition to the sullen, armchair-leaning baron on the right. Not only the physical distance shows the psychological distance of the spouses, but also the composition of the interior and the sober colors refer to the tensions within the family. The large format, the open perspectives (door and mirror) and the dog protruding from the pictorial space create an uneasy mood. Only the seven-year-old Guila loosens up the scene with her playful gesture on the chair. 

Furthermore, the viewer's gaze is drawn to a red chalk drawing next to the baroness' face. The drawing represents a portrait of the recently deceased grandfather Hilaire Degas, for whom his daughter Laure mourns.  Unresolved is the question of the apparent pregnancy of Bellilli's wife, which is additionally indicated by a cradle behind her person. Life in exile and the baroness' dissatisfaction in her marriage weighed heavily on the family and was echoed by Degas in his family portrait. 

Edgar Degas - The Bellilli Family

Oil on canvas, 1834-1917, 200 x 250 cm, Musée d'Orsay in Paris


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