His most famous painting (The Belelli Family) – Edgar Degas

His most famous painting (The Belelli Family) – Edgar Degas

Painter, sculptor, engraver and draftsman Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas was born on July 19, 1834 in Paris, France. The offspring of a high-ranking banker, Edgar Degas’ childhood took place in a wealthy family. After graduating from high school, he decided to pursue a career in law. Later, in 1855, he switched gears, joining the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Here he was given the opportunity to study under Louis Lamotte, himself a student of the “classical” artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Believing that travel would help his art studies, Edgar Degas visited Italian places such as Rome, Naples, and Florence very early in his career. He intended to learn and reproduce the art of the pioneers of the “Renaissance” such as Sandro Botticelli, Nicolas Poussin and Andrea Mantegna. At this stage of his career, one of the harbingers of “Impressionism”, Degas learned to paint family portraits, reflected most notably in “The Bellelli Family”.

The Belelli Family, or Family Portrait, is one of the most famous oil paintings of Edgar Degas as a youth. He visited Florence, Italy in August 1858. Inspired by his visit to Naples, the painting is a family portrait of his Italian aunt Laura Bellelli, then pregnant, her husband Baron Gennaro Bellelli, who was exiled from Naples (his hometown), and their two young daughters. The scene takes place in a mid-century saloon. The room has an authentic fireplace, with a mirror, clock and painted frame for a picture of Laura’s father adorning the wall. Degas painted The Belelli Family in his Paris studio in 1858-60.

Laura Belelli is shown in clothing symbolizing mourning for her deceased father. Her expression is dignified, domineering and stern, similar to that of her daughters. While his eldest cousin Giovanna stands with her mother, Edgar’s younger cousin Julia sits with a youthful gesture, presumably looking at her father. Both sisters wear a black dress with white studs. Baron Gennaro Bellelli appears aloof from his family, reflecting his submissive and insignificant self at the time. He is shown seated in a black armchair, half turned towards his presumably younger daughter and most of his back to the audience.

A work of genius by the young Degas, the portrait evokes the stress of each family member. None of the four characters are watchable. Everyone’s eyes are in different directions. Because of this apparently reflected family discord, the painting was not publicly shown until 1918, after the deaths of every character depicted in The Belelli Family. The intimidating dimensions, the sober colors, the deliberate use of open perspectives (doors and mirrors) combine to escalate an atmosphere of oppression. Mostly painted in black, this one of the first glimmers of “impressionism”, “The Belelli Family” has dark undertones.

After the successful completion of The Belelli Family, Degas returned to Paris in 1861 and turned his interest to “biblical” paintings. Desirable among ardent art patrons, the salon eventually noticed his work. This famous, annual state art exhibition brought him the fame and money he deserved. Financially stable, Degas was, in one way or another, deprived of the penury that befell most of his contemporaries. Although his “Historical” and “Biblical Art” was a huge sensation, Edgar Degas eventually chose subjects that were more contemporary. His quest to depict the pulsating life around him takes him to the race track. He depicted horses, jockeys and wealthy spectators in his hippodrome paintings. He later began to depict ballet dancers, who would eventually become his most famous subjects. His technique was unique, with a strong inclination towards painting, creativity and portraiture.

After 1870, Edgar’s vision began to fail him, turning him to “Figure Sculpting”. He packs his bronze statues of horses and ballet dancers with the same style of grace and lyricism as his paintings. Completely blind towards the end of his life, Edgar Degas died a lonely eccentric on September 27, 1917 in Paris. The National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition ‘Degas: Master of French Art’ showcases an assortment of Edgar Degas’ art, from his early portraits and historical portraits, to contemporary subjects and finally to his experimental paintings and photographs in the 1890s. All said and done, Edgar’s 200cm x 253cm frame, The Belelli Family, remains the ultimate highlight and is currently on display at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

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