Having a painter in the family before the age of photography must have been a comfortable and convenient method of perpetuating one’s portrait into posterity. At least, that is what one can appreciate when analyzing French impressionist painter Edgar Degas‘s works (and family tree).
Hilaire Germain Edgar de Gas was born in the summer of 1834 in Paris, the eldest of five children born to an upper-middle class family of mixed origins. His father, Augustin (or Auguste) de Gas, was a semi aristocratic banker from Naples. His mother, who died when young Edgar was only 13, was Celestine Musson, and came from a French creole family from New Orleans, Louisiana.
The de Gas family tree really starts off with the painter’s paternal grandfather, Hilaire de Gas, who was born in the French city of Orleans in the late 1760’s. Together with the artist’s father, he would be a central figure in the early years of Edgar’s life. After escaping the French revolution in the 1790’s, Hilaire married the Tuscan-born Giovanna Aurora Feppa, and their marriage produced seven children. All of them were born in the family’s large residence in Naples, the capital of the extinct kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Today, the house is popularly known as the Palazzo d’o Gasso, a clear allusion to Edgar’s family.
The first child of Hilaire and Giovanna de Gas was a girl whom they called Rose; it is clear that the de Gas family were socially conscious of their own existence, and consequently arranged brilliant marriages for their daughters. Rose married Giuseppe Morbilli, an Italian nobleman with the immodest title of Ducca di Sant’Angelo a Frosolone. The Morbillis formed a productive, if short-lived marriage (Giuseppe died after less than 20 years of marriage); his titles were passed on to his eldest son, Alfredo. Another son, Edmondo, married his first cousin Thérèse de Gas, Edgar’s favourite sister. Another daughter, Argia Morbilli, married Tommaso Guerrero de Balde, yet another aristocrat (he was the grandson of a marquis) and in time became the parents-in-law of another de Gas offshoot, Lucie de Gas.
Hilaire’s next son was Auguste, Edgar’s father. Auguste decided not to marry a rich Italian heiress, but instead found happiness in a French-American lady when he married Celestine Musson in 1832 in Paris. Celestine had plenty of relatives in New Orleans, and indeed several of her children spent long periods in Louisiana. Her youngest son, René de Gas, married her widowed niece Estelle Musson Balfour, whom he abandoned (together with their large brood of children) to marry someone else. Edgar Degas (who always used the unpretentious version of the family surname, as if dropping his aristocratic aspirations) took pity on poor Estelle, and painted her several times during one long visit to America, when she was almost blind.
Auguste and his wife Celestine had two daughters; one, Thérèse, married her cousin Edmondo Morbilli and was portrayed by her brother several times. Her sister Marguerite, who was somewhat plainer, married a Frenchman and had three children. Their brother Achille married in America, but left no descendants (like Edgar himself).
Auguste’s next sibling was Henri de Gas, who unlike most of his siblings, never married. But despite this fact, he became a father figure for his orphaned niece Lucie, whose father died in 1875). The two were painted by Edgar in 1876, still wearing black clothes in mourning. Lucie’s father, Edouard de Gas, had married the noblewoman Candida Primicile-Carafa, daughter of the late marquis de Cicerale. Their daughter Lucie was cared for in her youth by uncle Henri, and after that she was nurtured by her aunts and cousins. Inevitably, she married within the family. She became the wife of Eduardo Guerrero di Balde, the son of Argia Morbilli, and had many descendants who in time became the owners of many works of art by their famous uncle.
The next son Hilaire and Giovanna had was called Achille de Gas, and he died unmarried in Naples in 1875. His next sister, Clotilde Laura, married an Italian baron called Gennaro Bellelli, and they had two daughters, Giulia and Giovanna; all four were painted in their Neapolitan residence by their cousin Edgar. Baron Bellelli was, by the way, a liberal senator whose father had been ennobled by Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law. The family obviously did better after the unification of Italy in 1861, as can be seen by their intimately familiar portraits.
Last but not least came aunt Stephania (always called Fanny) de Gas, who married her sister-in-law’s brother Gioacchino Primicile-Carafa, marchese de Cicerale and ducca di Montejasi. The couple had a short marriage which only produced two daughters, Elena and Camilla Primicile-Carafa, who were portrayed in moruning with their mother by cousin Edgar in 1876. Elena married Gennaro Capece Minutolo, a descendant of ancient aristocratic families like the Ruffos, the Caracciolos and the Pignatellis. The portrait of the duchess of Montejasi with her daughters was the last of Degas’s great family portraits. Soon thereafter, ballet dancers became the centre of his life and work. But his family’s story is perpetuated through his beautiful and familiar portraits.