Explore the portrait
Degas is celebrated for his penetrating psychological portraits. The Bellelli family presents a great opportunity for students to explore how an artist can use visual cues to communicate the inner feelings of their subject and complex human relationships in a portrait.
Unlock the secrets of the painting using some or all of the following inquiry questions.
Students can discuss the questions in pairs or small groups before ideas are shared with the whole class.
- Look and discover – In small groups list everything you can see in this portrait. Compare the lists made by each group. What are the similarities and differences between the lists?
- Emotional response – How does this painting make you feel? What is it about the painting that makes you feel this way?
- Measuring the mood – How would you describe the mood or atmosphere ? How do the lines, forms and colours contribute to this mood?
- A sleuth’s perspective – What do you think might be going on? What aspects of the painting make you think this? Consider facial expressions, body language, colour palette.
- A psychologist at work – Who might the people in the painting be? How do you think they feel towards each other? What is it about the painting that suggests this?
- In the spotlight – Choose one person in the painting. What might they be thinking about? What makes you think this?
- Thinking about time – What clues can you find in the painting about the time during which the painting was made? What do you see in this portrait that you would be unlikely to find in a family portrait today?
- Picture puzzle – Find something in the painting that appears strange or puzzling? What do you think the significance of this might be?
- Past present and future – What might have happened just before the moment depicted in the painting? What might have happened just afterwards?
- Mystery and imagination – Read the quote by Degas below:
A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.
Where can you find examples of ‘mystery’, ‘vagueness’ and ‘fantasy’ in this painting?
Art and English
The Bellelli family is the largest painting Degas would ever create.
The portrait is a poignant portrayal of marital tension. Degas’s unhappy aunt, Laure, is pictured in mourning for her recently deceased father (Degas’s grandfather) Hilaire Degas, whose portrait hangs on the wall behind her. Gennaro, her embittered manic depressive husband, pointedly not wearing mourning clothes, sits with his back to the viewer. Caught between the dejected parents are their two charming daughters, Giulia and Giovanna, of whom Degas was very fond.
The sense of unease is accentuated by Giulia’s absent leg and the family dog, shown without its head, in the right foreground.
Prepare for the suggested Art and English activities below by extending students’ lateral thinking, vocabulary and descriptive powers with some ‘quirky questions’ and ‘delicious descriptions’.
What sort of weather does the atmosphere in the room suggest to you?
If the mother and father in this painting were animals what sort of animals might they be?
What fairy tale, computer game, book or film does the painting remind you of?
If the painting was an advertisement what would it be promoting?
Imagine you were a fashion or interior designer, scientist or small child. What aspects of the painting might you be particularly interested in?
What changes could you make to the painting to dramatically alter the mood it depicts? Consider what you could add, take away or change.
If you could choose just one word to encapsulate the scene – what would it be?
Imagine a contemporary version of this family portrait was printed on the front page of a newspaper. What would the headline be?
Experiment with alliteration to create a short phrase that encapsulates what you see in painting: Broken-hearted Bellellis, Bellellis on the brink.
Writing with colour – Choose 4 colours/shades in the painting and create interesting descriptive names for them. Imagine for example, you writing names for a paint chart and creating names for different ‘whites’ such as cool marble, water lily, porcelain, chalky, frosty, silvery or crisp white.
Painting with words – Choose a person in the painting. Write one descriptive sentence about them using adjectives, similes and interesting nouns. Include details of their clothing, facial expression and particular pose.
Synonym challenge – Swap your sentence with a partner and ask them to re-write it, replacing all the keywords with synonyms. Solemn expression for example could become frosty gaze.
Art: An Exhibition Of Photographic Psychological Portraits
View group portraits created by famous photographers. Discuss how the photographers have created mood and a sense of the relationship between the people in their work. Consider facial expressions, body language, composition and setting. You might like to explore some of the photographs from the selection below:
Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-1879)
Bill Henson (Australian b. 1955)
Anne Zahalka (Australian b. 1957)
Create a photographic group portrait that provides a psychological insight into the subjects and their relationship. This could be an individual or group project.
Imagine a particular scenario or viewpoint you want to express and use friends and family as models. Consider the setting, costume, (if applicable), and how you will evoke mood, the inner personality of each person and the relationship between the people.
Students print out the photographs and create an exhibition in the classroom, or share their portraits online.
English: Didactic Panels Or Audio Recordings
Art museums use didactic panels or labels, audio guides and other forms of communication to provide information, insights and talking points about works of art for the general public.
Visit the following website to look at and discuss labels written for adults and kids in the Degas: A New Vision exhibition :
You will notice that the Kids’ labels present information in a very simple form and often end with a question designed to engage them with the artwork.
Write your own didactic label for The Bellelli family aimed at a child or an adult visitor to the exhibition.
Bring the painting to life
What are they thinking?
Some of Degas paintings look like they have captured a still shot of an event, the characters in the images in mid-thought or sentence. But what do you think they are thinking or saying?
Use your device to tell the story:
- Save the above image, The Bellelli family, or if you are in the exhibition space, use the camera on your device to take a picture of any Degas artwork (and scene) you like.
- Open that image up in an app such as Halftone (for a comic book look) or Sketchbook Express (to add your own drawings) and complete the scene. You may want to use speech bubbles, or even draw in other elements to flesh out your story.
What are they saying?
Sure, creating speech bubbles is one way, but why not add your voice to the story. Using the iOS App ChatterPix, you can add your voice to any picture (with animated mouth added for good measure) you may want to recruit a few friends to be the other characters.