Elena Carafa was Degas’s first cousin. Her mother, Stefanina, the Duchessa Montejasi-Cicerale, was the youngest sister of Degas’s father. Like many members of Degas’s family they lived in Naples, which Degas himself returned to in the winter of 1873–4, when he accompanied his dying father there. He was in Naples again in 1875 for the funeral of an uncle.
This portrait was either painted during one of these visits – being in mourning may explain Elena’s black dress – or when Elena was in Paris. Degas had previously painted Elena with her younger sister, Camilla, around 1865–8. In that portrait, she also looks directly at us.
Degas originally planned to show Elena facing towards the right, with a more pensive look. In the finished painting, he turned her face and upper body to the left so that she looks at us directly.
Elena Carafa was Degas’s first cousin, although some 20 years younger than him. Her mother, Stefanina, the Duchessa Montejasi-Cicerale, was the youngest sister of Degas’s father, Augustin De Gas. Augustin had been born in Naples, and many members of the Degas family were still living in the city.
Degas had previously painted Elena with her younger sister, Camilla, around 1865–8. In that portrait, Elena also looks out directly at us. Degas returned to Naples in the winter of 1873–4, when he accompanied his dying father there. He was in Naples again in 1875 for the funeral of his uncle, Achille. This portrait of Elena was either painted during one of these visits or when she was visiting Paris. She would have been about 20 at the time.
Instead of sitting upright, as in a more formal portrait, Elena leans back into an armchair, its curved outline echoing the shape of her shoulders. Her torso falls diagonally across the picture and her head, set at a slight tilt, is a little off-centre. Her hands rest on a book or magazine, and she holds open the page she is reading with one finger. Despite the relaxed pose, her expression is more inquisitive than openly welcoming, as she looks up having been interrupted while reading. However, any sense of wariness, or even challenge, towards us is offset by the pose and by the painting’s warm colours, especially the deep pinks of the upholstery and the vermilion reds behind her dark hair. Wrapped in a pale emerald shawl that covers her black dress – she may be in mourning for Achille – Elena has no jewellery or other accessories. This further enhances the informality, even intimacy, of our encounter with her.
The pose we see here was not the one originally planned by Degas. Technical examination of the canvas shows that Elena was initially facing towards the right, with a more pensive and distant look. In the finished painting, Degas turned her face towards the centre so that she now looks at us directly. He also increased the volume of Elena’s hair, which is held up by a hairpin indicated by a tiny dab of white paint, and moved her left shoulder to position her upper body more towards us. Although altering the position and expression of the face significantly modified the portrait, the changes were relatively simple to make. If you look closely, you can see some of these alterations – for example, the original line of Elena’s left shoulder is visible underneath the shawl. As is often the case with Degas, he uses varying degrees of finish in the painting. Greatest attention is given to the face and hands but, as our gaze moves away from these, there is a reduction of focus and detail. The background in the upper right area especially is only sketched in very broadly.
Degas was to paint Elena at least one more time when, around 1876, he painted both sisters again, this time with their mother.
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