What’s in a Portrait?

Degas: His Life, Times, and Work

by Roy McMullen
Houghton Mifflin, 517 pp., $29.95

Pompeo Batoni Introductory Text edited and prepared for publication by

by Anthony Clark, A Complete Catalog of His Works with an Edgar Peters Bowron
New York University Press, 416 pp., $125.00

Reynolds Weidenfeld and Nicolson, (to be published by Abrams in the fall)

edited by Nicholas Penny
Royal Academy of Arts, London, published in association with, 408 pp., £20.00

It was probably in the second half of 1860 that Degas, who was then aged twenty-six, completed in Paris his large portrait group of the Bellelli family (Louvre)—the largest such group, indeed one of the two largest pictures, he ever painted. But despite many beautiful preliminary drawings and many references in letters, we know little about the precise circumstances of the composition, and in his biography of the artist the late Roy McMullen tells us that its subsequent fate is even more mysterious than its origins: it is, in fact, a fate probably without parallel in the history of nineteenth-century art. The picture did not, apparently, become accessible to the public until the sale that followed Degas’s death in 1917, at which date it was found rolled up in his studio; in the nearly sixty intervening years there is no certain record of anyone’s having seen it or having commented on its existence. Even its where-abouts remain unknown, for it may have been delivered to the family and then returned to Degas at some later stage, or it may never have left the artist’s possession.1

Mr. McMullen prefers the second of these hypotheses, and suggests that Degas could have been embarrassed by the picture because of some obvious derivations from earlier art and a superficial conformity to those academic conventions which he already despised. But could it not be that either he or the sitters (if they saw it) were embarrassed for quite different reasons? It is the frightening novelty of the conception that still strikes us (and that would have struck them even more)—a novelty that surely makes of it a landmark in the history of portraiture and one that has helped to falsify our ideas of the nature of nearly all portraits painted before it.

Laura Degas, the artist’s aunt, had been born in Naples in 1814 and, after a succession of humiliations, had at the age of twenty-eight married a Neapolitan lawyer, the Baron Gennaro Bellelli, who in 1848 was forced to leave the city as a result of his political activities. In 1852 the couple settled with their two daughters, Giulia and Giovanna, in furnished rooms in Florence, and it was there that six years later Degas met the exiled baron and stayed with him on slightly uneasy terms. He had already come across Aunt Laura and the children in Naples and had been much taken with them; he now waited impatiently for their return from that city, to which they had gone to be with Hilaire Degas (the painter’s grand-father), who died there in 1858 at the age of eighty-eight. Eventually the women returned to Florence and the family was reunited.

But “reunited” is hardly an appropriate word, for the Bellelli family was a deeply unhappy one—and Degas knew this when he was working on what he always referred to as “the picture” (“le tableau“—his own emphasis). In its early stages this was to be a portrait group of Laura and her two…

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