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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 daughters, but later he decided to include the baron (whose conduct, he was told, was “very much at fault” in the couple’s domestic troubles). The evidence thus suggests that Degas was powerfully attracted by the ambition of painting a portrait group of members of his own family which recorded—but “revealed” is a more tempting term—“incompatibility of personality and background…as a result of lack of affection and leniency that enlarges like a magnifying glass the individuals’ natural faults.”

In the (now) unforgettable painting in the Louvre we find ourselves looking into a simple but quite elegant room covered in bluish-green, flower-patterned wall-paper, in which the unbroken angularity of the picture frame (enclosing a portrait of the just-deceased Hilaire Degas), the table, the mantelpiece, and the other items of furniture seem to emphasize the general atmosphere of impersonality (“You can have no idea of what it is like to live with a family for several long years in furnished rooms,” wrote the baron to a brother-in-law at a time when Degas was at work on the picture). To our left stands the hieratic figure of the pregnant Laura in deep mourning, impassively staring into space, her right hand on the shoulder of the nine-year-old Giovanna, who is the only figure who stands directly facing us; seated close to her, but not in direct touch, is the slightly younger Giulia, identically dressed in white pinafore over black dress, looking to her left. Mother and daughters seem hardly aware of each other’s existence, but the tight interlocking forms of the composition bind them together into an almost self-contained group—almost, but not quite; for Giulia appears to acknowledge the presence of her father, who sits at the right of the picture, with his back to us, having turned to look earnestly at her. Theirs is the only human contact shown in this portrait de famille, but it is one that is decisively, if poignantly, intercepted by the strong, unyielding verticals of the furniture, which effectively cut off the baron from any genuine relationship with his family.

An interpretation of this sort seems plausible enough in the light of what we know about the Bellelli family and about the ambitions of Degas,2 though, in the absence of such knowledge, we might well ascribe to immaturity of composition what is now thought to be the result of sensitivity and cunning. When the picture was first “discovered” in 1918 the sitters had not been identified. Those who then admired this early masterpiece—and many did not—were especially struck by its “Frenchness,” and one writer suggested that it should be hung next to the fifteenth-century Pietà d’Avignon, whose gravity was recalled in the expression of the mother and daughters. But, from the first, the anomalous position of the father attracted attention, and a perceptive critic thought that the composition was more suited to a picture of genre than to a portrait group. Far from being incompatible, these two branches of painting had frequently been combined, but it is doubtful whether any previous artist had wished to depict family tensions and psychological complexity in this way, and—if current views are correct—recognition of Degas’s achievement forces us to think again about the nature of portraiture in general.

A very good exhibition of works by Sir Joshua Reynolds in London (with an admirable and fully illustrated catalog) and a very good book on Pompeo Batoni by the late Anthony M. Clark provide a useful opportunity to do just this, for Reynolds and Batoni were certainly the two most important portrait painters of the eighteenth century before the age of Goya and David. The sitters of the two artists could be very similar in type, though it is rare to find the same man or woman actually painted by both. Reynolds was familiar with portraits by Batoni and had little respect for them; Batoni obviously had far less opportunity to see paintings by Reynolds and although mezzotints could easily have reached him and surely did so, there is no record of how he reacted to them. At times their portrayals of rich and fashionable Englishmen are quite close, but this is probably due more to the nature of these sitters and to the use of similar sources (the antique, Raphael, Van Dyck, and so on) than to any direct mutual influence.

Reynolds, who strenuously advocated the primacy of history painting over all other branches of the art, very largely confined himself to portraiture, as was usual in England; Batoni was already an extremely accomplished figure painter (and a superlative draughtsman) before he turned to depicting foreign visitors to Rome—and one such visitor was amazed to find how exceedingly rare it was to see portraits, of living Italians in the city. Mr. Bowron calculates that of Batoni’s 265 surviving portraits, only thirty are of his fellow countrymen compared to some two hundred of the British. Reynolds, on the other hand (and for obvious reasons), only very rarely indeed painted anyone whose first language was not English.

Both Reynolds and Batoni were probably fortunate in living before the age of the large-scale monographic exhibition and well-illustrated catalogue raisonné which have now been so worthily consecrated to them; but Reynolds was perhaps the first major artist both to have had a large number of his portraits regularly exhibited to a wide public and to have had them extensively diffused through reproductive engravings. One of the risks of such exposure is brilliantly demonstrated by the satirical painting, The Conjurer, by the Irishman Nathaniel Hone. This shows a bearded and exotically dressed wizard, who (in the words of the catalog)

with his right hand waves a wand, thereby causing a shower of engravings to flutter down in to a fire…; out of the flames a painting is beginning to emerge. In his left hand he holds another engraving propped on an open tome, the title of which reads: ADVANTAG/EOUS COPIES/ FROM VARIOU/MAS….

The point of Hone’s satire is to suggest that Reynolds, despite his claims that the true artist will necessarily conceal direct evidence of the nourishment he must derive from studying the Old Masters, frequently did no more than steal compositions from them and adapt them to his own very different purposes. In the exhibition we see both the painting and the Old Master engravings featured in it displayed next to mezzotints of Reynolds’s portraits derived from them. Whether fair or not Hone’s remarkably acute investigation of many of Reynolds’s sources depended—like those of any student today immersed in a photographic library—on the easy availability of reproductions both of those sources and of the plagiaries allegedly derived from them.

The portrait painter with the limited raw material available to him—two eyes, a nose, a mouth, two arms, and so on—is peculiarly vulnerable to charges of monotonous repetition, and it was partly to avoid this difficulty that Reynolds was so keen to enlarge his repertoire of poses and gestures. For Batoni the problem might, because of his training, have been solved more easily, but in fact it was not a pressing one. His portraits were widely scattered through country houses, and until an exhibition held in London a few years ago and the publication of this exemplary study (which, incidentally, brings Batoni closer to us as an individual than any other Italian painter of the eighteenth century), almost no one had been able to see—even in reproduction—more than a dozen or so in circumstances that made adequate comparisons possible.

Now that we can study the works in a way that was never intended, we can (inevitably) see how frequently Batoni was forced to repeat himself. Only rarely was he given an opportunity to widen his repertoire—and how brilliantly he took advantage of such opportunities: the kilted Colonel Gordon strutting among the monuments of Rome like the last of the blond, barbarian invaders and the three-year-old Louisa Grenville looking (in the words of Anthony Clark) “as if a plain statement by Hogarth had been perfected by a Fragonard” will be familiar to visitors to the Treasure Houses of Britain exhibition in Washington—and there are some other exceptional pictures of the kind; but not many.

However, despite the limitations so often imposed on him, Batoni’s reputation will emerge enhanced through the reproduction of so many of his works. Not only does the book reveal his great gifts as a painter of history, mythology, and religion, but again and again it illustrates the pictorial magic with which he could transform into creatures of unusual beauty and delicate sensibility some, at least, of that endless, soul-destroying procession to his studio of spoiled young men whom he had never seen before and would never see again. Such evidence as we have makes it clear that Batoni was able to gratify (to our satisfaction as well as theirs) the demand made by sitters of all truly gifted as well as successful portraitists—Holbein, Rembrandt, and Goya, as much as Titian, Van Dyck, and Vel/da/azquez: that is, the combination of an easily recognizable likeness with a more generalized image embodying values admired by contemporary society—whether that image be one decipherable as integrity or melancholy or ruthlessness or elegant insouciance. Whatever their “incompatibility of personality and background,” the Baron and Baroness Bellelli were probably united in hoping for just such a family portrait when their nephew began to make his drawings of them for le tableau.

And Reynolds? The range of sitters portrayed by him was unusually great—far greater than Batoni’s: from royalty to courtesans, from distinguished writers to actresses, from soldiers to doctors and lawyers, from the very old to the very young. Some were certainly not known to him personally, but obviously it was vastly easier for him than it was for Batoni to have an impression of their characters or, at least, of their reputations. How significant is this for his portraiture? For all Hone’s mockery, the sparkle, richness, and diversity Reynolds brings to his designs fully justify the tribute of his rival Gainsborough: “Damn him, how various he is!” That variety of pose and gesture, however, was not intended to expose complexities of temperament or morals, but rather to free his sitters from the narrowly restrictive conventions which had imprisoned the likenesses of their parents and to create for them a fresh and heroic self-image.

Reynolds had an unusually well-developed sense of the values to which society as a whole paid homage—in theory, if not always in practice. Apart from two repulsively mawkish pictures of urchins in mythological guise painted for the Duke of Dorset, “one of Reynolds’s most imaginative patrons,”—a mixed blessing as far as this artist is concerned—only one painting in the exhibition appears to betray any obvious lack of decorum:3 the actress Mrs. Abingdon, in a ravishing dress of pink and white sits leaning over the back of a chair, her thumb in her mouth. But of course she is here shown acting the role of Miss Prue, the unsophisticated girl from the country, in Congreve’s Love for Love. And if we turn from her to the charming, oval-faced young lady who sits at a table, her arms demurely crossed, it is with a certain sense of shock that we learn that she is Kitty Fisher, a famous courtesan, notorious for promiscuity and avarice.

Could we have guessed? Should we have guessed? Perhaps the four ropes of pearls give a clue, for pearls (in Reynolds’s portraits, certainly, but in the “real world” also?) are very often associated with actresses and courtesans. Lady Worsley, however, who strides through the landscape in brilliant red riding costume, wears no pearls; yet when we see her again in the exhibition, she is lying in bed embracing a lover while on the stairs outside nine other men wait impatiently in line for their turn to replace him there. That representation—one of the less scurrilous prints provoked by a famous scandal of the time—is, of course, not by Reynolds but by an anonymous caricaturist, perhaps Gillray. One of the most imaginative features of the exhibition is the inclusion of a section devoted to caricatures—often of the very same people who, elsewhere in the galleries, are celebrated so differently by Reynolds. And a remarkably interesting essay in the catalogue demonstrates how much “high” and “low” art were dependent on each other and mutually reinforcing.

The caricatures are also of particular fascination because in no society before that of eighteenth-century England is it possible for us to look at a wide sample of alternate images of just that type of prominent figure whose respectful portrayal in other communities inevitably carries with it an implication of ultimate authority. But it is very difficult indeed to know how we can explore the relatively abundant evidence thus offered to us. For although we can, to some extent, think of caricature as uncommissioned portraiture and although a recognizable likeness is obviously essential to its success, attempts at individual characterization are far more limited and rigidly bound than they are even by the conventions of the grand manner; and those conventions themselves not only resist easy decipherment but are perhaps not designed to reveal “character” at all, in the sense in which we understand the term. Thus, despite having had the opportunity to look at Lady Worsley en flagrant délit, I am not wholly convinced by the argument advanced in the catalog that “the insouciance and provocative boldness which Reynolds conveyed in his portrait are evidence of his astute grasp of character.” Such an interpretation strikes me as relying too much on the new possibilities that Degas was much later to open up for portraiture.

Yet it is interesting to speculate whether these new possibilities might not themselves have been suggested to Degas by his study of caricature—not the cynical and anarchic caricatures of Gillray and his English contemporaries, but rather the great, humane achievements of Gavarni, and especially Daumier (whose work he keenly collected). Daumier did not paint portraits and his lithographs are generally humorous in tone, but he was deeply concerned with rendering the most varied nuances of human expression, and there are many scenes by him which “tell a story” of much the same kind as appears to have fascinated Degas when he set about painting the Bellelli family.

Roy McMullen’s very intelligent and sensitive biography of Degas puts his contribution to portrait painting within the richer setting of his art as a whole. And at the same time it examines his very difficult character with a finesse that is not unworthy of its subject. Though he was perhaps the greatest French painter of the nineteenth century, Degas’s weaknesses and faults are of a kind that particularly jar on the sensibilities of our own times. He was (probably) sexually impotent, and we like our artists to be rakes; his prejudices were mean, and we can more easily come to terms with the tormented and obsessed. McMullen is not censorious, but he does not conceal the facts, and, above all, he is—though not a professional art historian—acutely aware of the artistic problems that Degas was constantly setting himself in his attempts to create an art that should be quite new in spirit without discarding the achievements of earlier masters. This posthumous biography of a great painter sets a very high standard by which to judge the many others in the field, which are published in such large numbers.

Death hangs over the other two books noticed here, as it does over McMullen’s. Ellis Waterhouse had transformed the study of Reynolds—and of English art generally—and it was his researches that made possible the representative exhibition now on view in London: he died some four months before its opening. Anthony Clark’s role in assessing the work of Batoni and the other artists of eighteenth-century Rome was analogous to that of Waterhouse in the field of English painting. After his resignation from the Metropolitan Museum on a point of principle during what he (and many others) looked upon as a particularly unhappy phase in the history of that institution, he was working on a full-scale monograph on Batoni when he suddenly died, aged fifty-three, in 1976. That this has appeared now under his name is fitting, but should not be allowed to conceal the extraordinary tact with which his investigations have been edited by Edgar Peters Bowron and the vast amount of new material that has been added by him to Clark’s own researches.

  1. 1

    The confusing and not always consistent evidence has now been very conveniently summed up in the exhibition catalog Degas e l’Italia (Rome, 1984–1985) on which I have drawn for some of the points made here.

  2. 2

    A leading article in Apollo (October 1983) rejects this approach primarily because of the unlikelihood of the “reserved patrician” Degas wanting to “parade his family troubles.” This ignores the fact both that he seems not to have shown the picture either to his friends or to the public, and that—even if he did so—it was described merely as a portrait de famille.

  3. 3

    I say “obvious,” because although the two group portraits of the convivial Society of Dilettanti have been known for more than two hundred years, it is only recently that the object being held up by one of the members has been identified as a lady’s garter.

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