The inner intensity of the figure in the preparatory drawing is retained in Degas's painting, but he chose to open up the scene to include objects that related to the sitter. Martelli was an art critic. Books and papers are chaotically strewn across the table, and this untidiness is reflected in the sitter's untidy appearance. Martelli was unhappy as he was being forced to leave Paris for his native Italy to settle financial problems with his estate. The sad demeanour of the figure in the drawing is preserved in the painting as are specific aspects of the pose, in particular the position of his left hand beneath his armpit. Surrounded by his books, Martelli appears more as a scholar lost in thought, as opposed to the introverted, depressed man in the sketch.
Degas chose to depict his good friend Diego Martelli from above in this portrait of 1879. The unconventional viewpoint seems to emphasise Martelli's bulky size, especially as he is balanced precariously on a wooden stool. The objects on the table probably belonged to the Florentine art critic who was a supporter of a group of Italian artists known as the Macchiaioli, some of whom were influenced by Impressionism. Degas often included objects in his portraits which express something about the sitter's life. The lower part of a multi-coloured circular map of Paris is visible on the back wall. A slight pencil sketch of Martelli is in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland.
Degas's celebrated paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture focus on aspects of Parisian modern life, including the racecourse and the ballet. His studies at the École des Beaux-Arts encouraged his interest in the human figure which remained central to his art. He travelled to Italy, where he had relatives, and where he continued to study the art of the past. The family portraits he painted there, however, also reflect his interest in capturing momentary appearances and unusual viewpoints. This he shared with the Impressionists, whom he met through Edouard Manet, on his return to Paris. Degas contributed to seven of the eight Impressionist group exhibitions.