Precise geometry, diffuse emotion

(Museum of Fine Arts)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / April 12, 2011

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Twenty years before he painted this electrifying family portrait, which the Museum of Fine Arts bought for $20 million in 2003, Edgar Degas jotted a little note in his diary. “The people you love the most,’’ he wrote, “are the people you could hate the most.’’

It’s an observation you can imagine almost any sensitive man in his early 20s (as Degas was then) committing to a private notebook. But could any other artist have given the insight such devastating pictorial form?

The picture shows Degas’s Aunt Fanny (Stefanina) and her two daughters, Elena and Camilla.

It’s the last of his family portraits, and it feels significant that it was painted in the same location — Naples — and in the same color key — inky blacks against a blue-green background — as his first great family portrait, “The Bellelli Family.’’

Art historians believe Degas (1834-1917) painted the picture in 1876. He was visiting Naples with his brother Achille in a desperate attempt to raise money from creditors.

It was a fraught time for the family. Degas’s father, Auguste, had been dead for two years, and his uncle, also called Achille, had died the previous year. Both events left the Degas family in mourning, and in a serious financial mess.

Look at the composition. It has a “caught-on-the-fly’’ look, which Degas, inspired in part by photography, in part by Japanese prints, was fond of contriving.

And yet in fact it’s very sturdily composed. The head of the duchessa, whose weary, unimpressed gaze absolutely dominates the image, is at the top of a black pyramid, which is itself in the center of a square that takes up two-thirds of the image. The ratio of the left portion to this larger right side is the same as that of the right side to the whole.

In other words, this most modern and spontaneous looking of portraits is actually based on the ancient geometric principle of the “golden section.’’

But that was evidently too tidy for Degas, who adds complications by having the duchessa recede in space and tilt ever so slightly to her left. The result is a dislodged feeling, almost a latent violence, that anticipates 20th-century portraits by the likes of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.

The daughters, blurry and blank-faced over on the left, seem to be at the piano. Degas was interested in the psychology of listening to music, and in the way emotions aroused by music might be reflected in the face. (This picture usually hangs near an earlier Degas portrait of his father listening to Lorenzo Pagans playing the guitar).

But you don’t get a sense of any direct correlation between music and emotion from this picture. Instead, the act of listening to music has dissolved all social and familial niceties, all pretense.

It would be false to suggest that Degas shows us his aunt’s true thoughts. She’s too in control, too much of a matriarch for that. What we get instead is a sense of fatigue, isolation, pressure, mortal dread — all feelings that can exist even within the most loving of families.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at


At: Museum of Fine Arts. 617-267-9300.