This small sketch was made in the spring of 1879 in Martelli's Paris study, as he was preparing to return to Italy. Degas and Martelli were close friends, and this drawing has an informality and emotional honesty that suggests familiarity between the artist and sitter. The exaggerated cropping of the scene to focus on the figure suggests that Degas was positioned close by as he sketched his friend. Martelli was noted for his energy and animated personality, but this was not what Degas chose to show. Instead, he focused on the inner state of Martelli, whose crossed arms and vacant downcast stare indicate that he is lost in thought. Degas's ability to capture the physical appearance and emotional mood of the figure in just a few spontaneous strokes is a testimony to his skill.
Degas painted two portraits of his good friend Diego Martelli in the spring of 1879. The paintings, although very similar, show Degas experimenting with different formats. Seven preliminary studies exist for these paintings, but some seem to relate more to one of the paintings than the other. This study is the smallest and sketchiest of all the preliminary drawings, and was probably Degas’s ‘première pensée’ (first thought) for both the portraits. He sketched the bulky figure of Martelli, using strong pencil lines to outline his frame. The table and the picture in the background are indicated by a few lines, but none of Martelli’s belongings that appear in the finished paintings are present. This immediate study was intended to capture the pose and attitude of the sitter.
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.