Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Bellelli Sisters - Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas, The Bellelli Sisters, 1865-66,
Edgar Hilaire Germain Degas, one of the most well known and beloved (all those ballerinas...) of Impressionist artists is also one of the most enigmatic.Since it is assumed his ballerinas are lovely and graceful, people seem to not make the connection to the licentious world the artist was actually depicting. But of all of Degas' paintings revealing modernity with all its concurrent problems, it's the family portrait's that I find the most mesmerizing. There is something so disturbing about the discordance and the disconnect that is so palpable in his family portrayals.  The protagonists are usually looking in opposite directions, barely touching with solemn, melancholy expressions.  But this painting with the one girl's face blurred is even more puzzling than most of his other portraits.

Edgar Degas, The Bellelli Family (Family Portrait), 1858-1867
(Musee d'Orsay)

I wrote about the haunting Bellelli Family Portrait last year and it was quite a surprise running into The Bellelli Sisters, during my visit to Los Angeles Country Museum of Art two months ago, as if running into an old friend.  In this portrait Degas' nieces, Giovanna and Guiliana Bellini, are depicted as young ladies as opposed to the little girls in pinafores they are in the family portrait. Degas was very fond of this painting and did not part with it his whole life because he never saw his cousins again after he painted this portrait. If he cared so much for his cousins, and  taking into consideration the closeness he presumably shared with the girls' mother, his aunt Laura, then  this begs the question of why he always chose to represent families in disconnect.  Was it just a part of his artist-journalist persona of reporting his observations of the human condition or was it something else.  The gallery label provides a comprehensive conclusion:
"Edgar Degas's talent for portraiture was manifested in radical compositions and the ability to express the character of his sitters with great subtlety. In this double portrait of his Italian cousins, he gives each figure her own space and direction, suggesting their distinct personalities. Giovanna faces the viewer, while Giulia is turned aside , focused elsewhere. The two sisters are a study in contrast:: one fair, the other dark; one in black, the other in a lighter, brown dress.  Degas blurred the details of Giulia's face, perhaps imitating effects of photography."


LACMA gallery label and website 


  1. I love this, Sedef. I need to look up more information about his portraits now. As you say, the Bellelli family appears to be one disconnected family. And why would he mimic photography like that (not very well, wouldn't you say?)? Or if he never saw the sisters again in person, was he painting from some kind of photograph? Why wouldn't he have put Giulia in better focus? I don't expect you to be able to answer these, of course! Fascinating look at a perplexing topic -- thank you!

  2. Karen,
    Edgar Degas was one perplexing individual, he was a misogynist and then there is his famous quote about 'raping art' but his work is truly fascinating. I find it so interesting - he has so many levels to it that need to be discovered. I absolutely love it!


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