The whole narrative behind the artist-muse relationship is constantly repeats itself everywhere. That is, whoever holds the brush has total control and power over the painting, and is the only active participant. Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady On Fire shakes this outdated narrative to its core, all while giving us a beautifully represented love story between two women.
Women only got to be something to be looked at, and their most important qualities were watered down to being aesthetically pleasing. This dynamic of the artist-muse relationship left no room for equality since it followed the footsteps of the partriarchal narrative that women are passive and there to be observed, yet men are active and observers. This meant that only the artist was responsible for the final painting, and the muses were passive, almost objects to be drawn as if they were landscapes. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it becomes clear that the muse’s equal contribution to a painting cannot go unrecognized, as they are one of the vital elements in it.
The film takes place in 18th century France. Marianne is an artist commissioned to secretly paint the portrait of Heloise, to be sent to her suitor. Heloise doesn’t approve of this decision made for her, and Marianne paints her portrait while disguising herself as her companion on her daily walks. When the portrait is finished, it only showcases the artistic talent of Marianne and has no relation to Heloise, merely a dead-pan impression of her. Upon seeing the final product, Heloise says that it “isn’t her” at all, and decides to pose for Marianne. During their time together, they learn each other better and it reflects onto the canvas.
Heloise constantly reminds Marianne that they are “in the same place”. Especially on one occasion when Marianne indicates that she wouldn’t want to be in her place. Heloise reminds her that in the creation of an art piece, they are both present and have equal participation. The muse has the power to affect what the final product will be, just as much as the person behind the canvas. Both parties in this process see one another and the canvas doesn’t hide the artist enough to be left unseen. Both parties are observe one another, and it alters the course of the painting whether they are aware of it or not.
Another scene indicates Heloise’s active participation, and that is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. After Marianne finishes reading the story to Heloise and Sophie, they start to argue about Orpheus’s decision. Sophie passionately says that he is selfish because he couldn’t wait for enough to save her. Heloise’s take sets the tone of her relationship with Marianne. She suggests the idea that maybe Eurydice asked him to turn around and look at her. This meant taking an active part in the story rather than only watching things happen to her. She also says that he made the “poet’s choice”.
The portrait Marianne painted without Heloise’s input, is just an advertisement. It lacked what the portrait needed to have, which is Heloise’s touch and spirit. The movie continuously reminds the audience that the muse’s active presence in creation is just as important as the artist’s. In the process of creation, there isn’t only one observer and a single way direction of gaze. The artist-muse dynamic doesn’t make one party more in control than the other. The muse looks back at you.
For a more in-depth reading about the artist-muse dynamic, check these articles out:
- The Problem with the Muse in Art History, by Angelica Frey.