His Most Famous Painting (The Bellelli Family) – Edgar Degas

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Painter, sculptor, printmaker, and draughtsman Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas was born on July 19, 1834, in Paris, France. The progeny of a high-flying banker, Edgar Degas’ childhood was set in an affluent family. Subsequent to completing secondary school, he decided to take up a career in law. Later on, in 1855 he switched gears, joining the esteemed École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Here, he got the opportunity to study under Louis Lamothe, who himself was a student of the ‘Classical’ artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. As per his belief that travelling would help his training in art, Edgar Degas visited Italian places, such as Rome, Naples, and Florence, very early in his career. He intended to learn and to reproduce the art of ‘Renaissance’ pioneers, such as Sandro Botticelli, Nicolas Poussin, and Andrea Mantegna. At this juncture of his career, one of the heralds of ‘Impressionism,’ Degas skilled himself at drawing family portraits, reflected most remarkably in “The Bellelli Family.”

“The Bellelli Family” or Family Portrait is one of the most famous canvas oil paintings by Edgar Degas, as a youngster. He visited Florence, Italy in August 1858. Inspired from his Naples visit, the painting is a family portrait of his Italian viking style hoodie Laura Bellelli, who was pregnant then, her husband Baron Gennaro Bellelli, who had been exiled from Naples (his hometown), and their two young daughters. The scene is set in the mid-century parlor. The room authentically has a fireplace, with a mirror, a clock, and a drawn picture frame of Laura’s father, gracing the wall. Degas painted “The Bellelli Family” in his studio at Paris during 1858-60.

Laura Bellelli is shown in attire, symbolizing the mourning for her deceased father. Her expression is decorous, dominating, and stern, similar to that of her daughters. While his eldest cousin Giovanna is standing with her mom, Edgar’s younger cousin Giulia is sitting, sporting a youthful gesture and is probably looking at her father. Both the sisters are wearing black dress with white pinafores. Baron Gennaro Bellelli looks aloof from his family, reflecting his then subdued and insignificant entity. He is shown seated in a black armchair, half-turned towards probably his younger daughter and most of his back towards the viewers.

A work of genius by young Degas, the portrayal evokes the stress of each member of the family. None of the four characters is looking at each other. Everyone’s gaze is fixed in different directions. Owing to this obviously reflected family discord, the painting was publicly shown in 1918 only, after the demise of every character shown in “The Bellelli Family.” The daunting dimensions, the sober colors, the intentional use of open perspectives (doors and mirrors), all combine to escalate an ambiance of oppression. Hued mostly in black, this one of the first splendors of ‘Impressionism,’ “The Bellelli Family” carries dull shades.

After the successful completion of “The Bellelli Family,” Degas returned to Paris in 1861, and shifted his interest to ‘Biblical’ paintings. Coveted amongst ardent art patrons, the Salon eventually noticed his work. This celebrated, annual, state-owned art exhibition brought him his well-deserved fame and money. A financially sound Degas was either ways devoid of the paucity that befell most of his contemporaries. Although, his ‘Historical’ and ‘Biblical Art’ was a huge sensation, Edgar Degas ended up choosing themes that were more contemporary. His urge to portray the pulsating life around him took him to the racetrack. He pictured horses, jockeys, and well-heeled spectators in his racetrack paintings. Later, he began to depict ballet dancers, which eventually turned out to be his most celebrated subjects. His technique was unique, with a strapping incline towards draftsmanship, oeuvre, and portraiture.

After 1870, Edgar’s vision began to fail him, turning him to ‘Figurine Sculpturing.’ He packed his bronze statues of horses and ballet dancers with the same style of grace and lyricism, as did his paintings. Completely blind towards the end his life, Edgar Degas died a lonely eccentric on September 27, 1917, in Paris. The National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition, ‘Degas: The master of French art,’ displays an assortment of Edgar Degas’ art, from his early portraiture and historical ones, to modern themes, and finally to his experimental paintings and photographs in the 1890s. All said and done, Edgar’s 200cm x 253cm frame, “The Bellelli Family,” stays as the best milestone and is currently displayed at the museum Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

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