#FrancisOnFilm: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

09 March 2020


Is it wrong to paint someone’s portrait without their consent? Does doing so invade their privacy, taking intimacy from them? In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, writer-director Céline Sciamma presents this ethical dilemma for a woman portraitist in late eighteenth century Brittany. The portraitist is hired to paint a young woman who has already refused to sit for another and who has not been told the reason for the portraitist’s visit to her family’s home. 


One goal of the portrait is straightforwardly economic: it is to be taken to a prospective (and supposedly wealthy) spouse to entice him to marry the subject. So the portrait must make its subject look attractive, but not so unrealistically beautiful that the supposed suitor feels cheated when they finally meet. But the portraitist has additional goals: she wants to reveal what she sees in her subject, aspects of her subject that she may not even recognize herself. Day by day, the portraitist spends casual time with her subject, surreptitiously sketching her and hoping to keep her sketches hidden. 


As she becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the representation she is creating, both she and the audience are pressed to consider what the problems are. Is it just that it’s hard to paint from memory and episodic sketches? Or, it is hard to paint someone well when they are not willing participants in the project? Or, are there other artistic goals that require the subject’s agreement?


These questions have been discussed extensively in the context of photography. One example is in a major retrospective now at SFMOMA. Photographer Dawoud Bey’s early work, Harlem, USA, aimed to represent the Black subject. His goal as a photographer was to present the stories of people not often heard; he argued that he could only do this if they knew what he was doing and shared their stories with him. Like Bey, the portraitist in Sciamma’s film struggles with whether she can authentically represent her subject as she surreptitiously sketches images hoping that her efforts remain hidden. 


More generally, writers in aesthetics have debated whether photography is different from portraiture in ways that illuminate the struggles of the portraitist in Sciamma’s film. Some think that photographers merely depict while portraitists, well, paint. Portraiture, these writers say, is mediated by the artist in a way that photography is not. The artist in Sciamma’s film is creating an image of her subject but through her art; she is not just replicating, as these critics believe photos do. On extreme versions of this view about photography, photographers do not exercise artistic agency; they instead exercise the technological ability to reproduce a moment in time. So perhaps photographers need consent to replicate their subjects, but artists don’t, because they aren’t really replicating something about the subject; they are creating something new.


But this view about photography is controversial. Philosopher Dominic Lopes has offered the most sustained criticism of the view that photography only depicts, arguing in Four Arts of Photography and many other works that photography becomes art in multiple ways. Photography is not simply concerned with epistemic accuracy, Lopes contends. Instead, photographers reveal unseen aspects of the world, express concepts, deploy techniques, and display abstract formal properties. 


I think Lopes is right about photography. But the conclusion to draw is not that photographers don’t need consent—and by implication that portraitists don’t need consent, either. Indeed, quite the reverse—and for reasons that suggest portraitists need consent, too. Both photographers and portraitists reveal deeper or unrecognized aspects of her subject. They see and present their subjects through the eyes of another. They thus risk revelations that may trouble their subject or reveal private information. They also use the image of their subject for purposes of their own, from displaying technical wizardry to asserting powerful social critique. In short, they use their subjects as means to their own artistic goals. 


In Sciamma’s film, the portraitist’s problem is that there is more to representation than replication. The portraitist cannot create a reasonable picture of her subject without evoking and capturing elements of her subject that her subject does not see. In so doing, however, she risks revealing aspects that her subject would not want the world to see, that her subject thinks are misrepresentations, or that her subject would disavow.


Images of faces and bodies are not just superficial; they reflect aspects of identity as constructed by others. Sciamma’s film is deep on many levels, but one of the most important is how it asks us to think about portraiture, privacy, and consent.

Comments (6)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, March 12, 2020 -- 4:09 AM

This is not a blog post or a

This is not a blog post or a pipe.

Portraiture does not mean the same thing today which is all the more pithy.

What a great write-up. I am going to research this. My thought on this was shallow until now.


Ok....maybe still shallow...but I will rewatch.

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