|Edgar Degas, The Bellelli Family, 1858-1867|
Degas was living in Italy and completing his artistic training when he painted this Family Portrait. Degas' Aunt Laura, her husband Gennaro Bellelli and their two daughters, Guiliana and Giovanna are represented in their rented house in Florence where they were at exile because of Gennaro's involvement in a political plot back at their home in Naples.
Although at this time, the tradition of posing for portraits was an unsmiling demeanor, the palpable tension separating each member of the family is still a little peculiar. There is no sense of togetherness or hierarchy where the mother stands tall, a severe expression in her face with the two daughters by her side, while the father sits off to the side, his back turned to the viewer. Laura has a lack hand on one girl's shoulder and the other on the desk near but not touching the other daughter. The husband and wife are at the farthest corners of the picture plane, not even connecting thorough their gazes. As a matter of fact, there is a collective distraction where all the figures are looking at different directions. The little portrait of Laura's father hanging on the wall behind her is calling attention to her genealogy and not to her husband's. The father is in profile and his chair blocks the way so even the viewer can not connect with him.
Degas further emphasizes the sense of disconnect by the cool colors in his pallet as well as his outlines. He uses a lot of blues and only a little bit of yellow in the carpet to add dynamism. Degas' aunt and her daughters are in black while her husband, in gray, does not match them.
Laura had to marry Gennaro as a last resort because her father had not been satisfied with any of her other suitors until she was 28. She was extremely unhappy in her marriage and shared her misgivings with Degas. There is even speculation that she might be pregnant in this painting, hinting at marital rape.
There was a lot of concern at this time about the state of affairs in middle class and upper-middle class families. People were becoming more mobile and not living or working together all the time, on a farm. The government emphasized the importance of procreation and the family where people could get the proper education, after the devastating defeat of the Franco-Prussian war and the upheaval of the Commune. All these factors were affecting families and Degas, especially, was obsessed with the disconnect in relationships. His family portraits all share the same, odd, dissociated figures. Ironically, his brothel images are a more unified group than his family portraits.
Degas painted this interior scene because he could not paint outdoors due to a problem with his eyes. The whole composition is artifice because it has been very deliberately constructed by Degas. He emphasized the bigger social issues by the placement of the figures, the use of bold colors, and the horizontal and vertical planes in this composition.
Even though Degas used the mirror in the back to open up the space, allowing a little bit of light to come inside the room, this still couldn't dispel the general gloomy mood of this painting. This family in their rented house far away form their own home, with faces devoid of all expression was Degas' direct experience. I think in representing them in this manner he not only allowed what he knew of their private situation to be displayed but also used this pretext to touch upon a major concern of society which in turn makes The Bellelli Family a picture of modernity.