In July 1856, Degas travelled to Italy, where he remained for the next three years. Fascinated by the works of the old masters, he drew and painted numerous copies of Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and other Renaissance artists, but — contrary to conventional practice — he usually selected from an altarpiece a detail that had caught his attention: a secondary figure, or a stray head that he treated as a portrait. Following his arrival, he made several drawings of his uncle, completing the first studies for what would become widely regarded his early masterpiece, The Bellelli Family.
Several artists provided inspiration for the portrait, including Anthony van Dyck, Giorgione and Botticelli, as well as portrait studies of Ingres and Velázquez’s famous group portrait Las Meninas. As in the latter painting, a picture, mirror and doorway are used to expand the space of the interior. Taking the family and their living environment as its subject, the painting presents Degas’ first attempt to characterise a room in relation to the personalities and interests of the individuals that are within it.
Viewed alongside the work of Degas’ contemporaries, the painting’s uniqueness is largely due to the composition, presenting a family portrait painted on the grand scale of a historical drama. The image offers a psychologically penetrating view of a divided family, with the placement of the figures suggestive of the parents’ alienation from one another and of the divided loyalties of their children. The artist’s aunt, Laura Bellelli, stands as if for an official portrait, her expression suggesting unhappiness, while one hand rests protectively on Giovanna’s shoulder and the other balances her pregnant body. The daughter Giulia, portrayed in profile in the centre and seated in a small chair, displays youthful restlessness as she faces, arms akimbo, in the direction of her father, and she serves as the compositional link between the parents. The father, Gennaro, appears indifferent to the situation and is turned toward, though seated apart from his family, his face mostly in shadow. The commanding figure of the other daughter, Laura, is placed against a flat wall and a crisp picture frame, while Gennaro’s more recessive figure is framed by a mantelpiece and reflective mirror, conveying a sense of emotional distance.
The drawing hung on the wall behind them features a portrait of the recently deceased Hilaire Degas and was presumably a study for the portraits Degas made of his grandfather, drawn in the style of the Clouets. The placement of this image directly behind the mother’s head connects the generations of his family, following a convention of portraiture used since the Renaissance, including ancestral effigies. By including this family member, Degas implicitly affirms his own presence, identifying with Laura, with whom, as their correspondence attests, he was unusually close.
The alienation between the sexes would become a recurring subject in Degas’ work of the 1860’s. Sulking and Interior Scene (The Rape) are both works of ambiguous content set in contemporary Paris, and The Young Spartans and The Misfortunes of the City of Orleans occur in the ancient and medieval eras, yet in each canvas a degree of hostility between the sexes can clearly be seen. The Bellelli Family is notable for introducing psychological conflict in a painting that documents the artist’s own family. Given his usual discretion, some critics assume that such expressions were the product of Degas’ unconscious mind.
The portrait was almost certainly conceived as an exhibition piece, for it is doubtful that Degas would have produced a canvas in such a monumental scale purely for private reasons. In April 1859 Degas wrote to his father asking him to look for a studio in Paris so that he could work on an unspecified project, most likely The Bellelli Family, and it is believed that the painting was eventually exhibited in the Salon of 1867. The Bellelli Family remained with Degas until his last move in 1913, at which time he left it with his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel. The painting was not seen again publicly until after Degas’ death, when it was put up for sale in 1918 as part of the painter’s estate. Its unexpected appearance created a sensation and it was immediately purchased by the Musée du Luxembourg for 400,000 francs. In 1947 the painting was exhibited in the Musée d’Impressionisme (Jeu-de-Paumes) and subsequently moved to the Paris’ Musée d’Orsay, where it resides today.