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Edgar Degas

Diego Martelli (1839 - 1896)

  • Diego Martelli (1839 - 1896)
    Creative Commons CC by NC

About this artwork

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 Galleries of Scotland.

Updated before 2020

Edgar Degas (1834 - 1917) French
Diego Martelli (1839 - 1896)
Oil on canvas
110.40 x 99.80 cm; Framed: 134.00 x 123.90 x 10.70 cm
Object type:
Credit line:
Purchased 1932
Accession number:
NG 1785
On Loan
Diego Martelli

Degas is perhaps best known as the painter of ballet dancers and racecourses but he was also one of the greatest portrait painters of his age. At a time when the Impressionists were seeking new ways to capture modern life, Degas made sharply observed and unconventional portraits that depicted people he knew well in their everyday surroundings. He believed that a portrait should do more than capture a physical likeness and personality but should also evoke something of the life and social habits of a sitter.

His subject here is Diego Martelli, a writer and art critic from Florence. It is not clear when Degas first met Martelli but Degas had numerous connections to Italy through his family and friends and he might have encountered the writer during a stay in Florence some twenty years before he painted this portrait. A co-founder of influential journals that promoted new tendencies in art, Martelli was a key supporter of a group of Italian artists called the Macchiaioli and he later became one of the first Italian critics to write favourably about French Impressionism. This is one of two portraits that Degas made of the critic when he came to Paris to write about the Exposition Universelle of 1879. What appears to have been a casual acquaintance between the two men turned to friendship in these few months and, in a letter back to a painter friend in Florence, Martelli wrote of the ‘delightful hours’ that he spent in the company of the painter: ‘I see a lot of Degas because he has real talent and an amazing subtlety of observation.’

Degas was fond of unusual viewing angles and unconventional poses in his portraits. Here we look down on Martelli whose portly figure is shown perched somewhat precariously on a folding stool,as if he has just turned away from his work. The blue sofa, the large slippers and the table covered with a jumble of papers, pamphlets, letters and books form part of the writer’s habitat. Although they are painted with verve and apparent spontaneity, the still life objects (which include an inkpot, skullcap and pipe) would have been carefully chosen by Degas to complement a portrait of a man of letters. The distinctive, brightly coloured image behind the sofa is harder to decipher but has been plausibly identified as the lower half of a map of Paris. Martelli is seated on a so-called ‘Savonarola’ chair, named after the famous book-burning friar of Renaissance Florence, an amusing Italian reference that Degas would surely have enjoyed. For Martelli himself, Degas chose the most artistically challenging of poses with the figure seen from above, twisted away from the viewer, his arms folded in a gesture that suggests concentration and reflection yet at the same time emphasises his corpulent figure. As someone who could be arrogant, aloof and brilliantly caustic, Degas was perhaps not the typical portrait painter who could charm his subjects and set them at ease. In this picture, however, he has left us a work that is a witty, warm and affectionate portrait.

This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.

True colours

Edgar Degas