Degas: the Original Awkward Family Portrait

Have you heard of Awkward Family Photos? What began as a small online blog collecting – you guessed it – awkward family photos went viral almost immediately, and the proud owners of the site have now branched out into coffee table books and even a board game. Here’s two examples:

1435856011 3813130698









Well, long before photos could be taken with a single click, when families posed for painted portraits, Edgar Degas painted, The Bellelli Family, a family portrait that displayed not only great prowess in portraiture technique, but also an incredible amount of awkwardness. Painted between 1858 and 1860, either in Paris or possibly in Italy, Degas’ painting is considered one of his early masterpieces.

"The Bellelli Family," by Degas. 1858-1860.
“The Bellelli Family,” by Degas. 1858-1860.


A quick look reveals the glorious amounts of awkwardness in Degas’ depiction of his aunt’s family:

  • Why isn’t anyone looking at each other?
  • Seriously? No one is even smiling?
  • Only one person is looking out at Degas, and us – Giulia, the daughter on the left?
  • Why is the father, Gennaro Bellelli, have his chair turned away from us? Is he angry? Is he embarrassed? Is that position even comfortable for him?
  • Why does the mother (Degas’ aunt, Laura) look so angry? Is she domineering over the family?
  • Sure, the mother’s all-black clothes and her father’s portrait on the wall behind her must mean she’s in mourning, but why wouldn’t she put on something a bit more appropriate for a portrait?
  • Could the two daughters look any more different, with Giulia looking like an absolute suck-up to her mother and Giovanna (in the center) practically showing off?

The truth is much less interesting than this cursory glance reveals, however. Degas arranged the poses of his figures, completely aware of what their positions would denote. However, most awkward – and exhilarating – of all is Degas’ success at depicting this family drama. As The Independent puts it, even if you know the truth of the family situation,

“Just looking at it, you find you’re taking sides. The woman is clearly a tyrant. The man is clearly impossible. Giulia is a little miss. Giovanna is a brat. Somebody is to blame and somebody’s going to suffer. It’s an acute psychological study, not just of the Bellellis, but of the viewer. Ask someone to tell you about Degas’ Bellelli Family and they’ll tell you all about themselves.”

Degas is featured in four lessons for the Art Docent Program, including Dancers for third grade and Impressionism for sixth grade.

What about you? Do you have any awkward family photo experiences? Share in the comments below!

P.S. Here’s an extra special treat just for you. This particular writer has his own awkward family photo to share. That’s me, on the left, posing in a Hawaiian shirt with an American flag — for our Christmas photo.

What can I say? I love America.
What can I say? I love America.
Share and Enjoy:
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • StumbleUpon
  • LinkedIn
  • email
  • Print
  • RSS

Leave a Reply