Art speaks volumes in Céline Sciamma’s rapturous eighteenth-century love story Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and much of that is thanks to painter Hélène Delmaire. It is Delmaire’s vividly lifelike canvases that grace the film from start to finish, standing in as the work of Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter who travels to an isolated French isle on an unusual assignment: to complete a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel)—a troubled, well-to-do young woman destined for a marriage she desperately does not want—without her gaining knowledge of the project. Delmaire’s lavishly meticulous brushwork seems to channel all the quiet intensity of the passion that gradually emerges between Marianne and Héloïse. And so, when it came time to commission a cover image for our release of the movie, Criterion art director Eric Skillman knew right away that there was only one artist for the job.
As Delmaire explains in the clip above, excerpted from a supplement on our new Portrait edition, it was after discovering her paintings on Instagram—particularly a series of portraits with the subjects’ eyes crossed out by a defiant, censor-bar-like streak of paint—that Sciamma approached her about making original artwork for the film. (By that point, the classically trained Delmaire had already shown her work in galleries throughout Europe and the United States.) Thus began an intensive collaboration between the two that produced a wealth of preliminary studies—studies that came in handy again once the Criterion assignment rolled around. It wasn’t long before Skillman and Delmaire began discussing the possibility of creating a new image for the cover, one that would be based on a preparatory sketch of Haenel that Delmaire had made in that early back-and-forth with Sciamma, and also be able to convey the timeless quality and immediacy of the film’s romance. “Eric and I chose an approach that would allow my own style to be more prevalent than in the film paintings, a bridge between eighteenth-century Marianne and contemporary me, so to speak,” Delmaire says. “The idea was to obscure the face of Heloïse with a brushstroke, a process I use in my personal work and that happens to play nicely into the film’s narrative.” (At a pivotal moment, Marianne lashes out by defacing her own finished portrait of Héloïse, after the subject says she fails to recognize herself in it.)
As the artist then set to work, she made sure to document her progress closely, in case a not-quite-finished version of the image ultimately seemed to capture the spirit of the film, with its many shots of works in progress, better than the done deal itself. Though Delmaire admits to being quite partial to some of these unfinished versions—a selection of which can be seen in the gallery above—it was “the finished piece with the brushstroke over the face” that ultimately became the face of the Criterion edition. As for the image’s textural detail—perhaps most stunningly rendered in the ripples of Héloïse’s green dress—it rivals that of any of the more traditionally realistic paintings featured in the film. No surprise, then, to learn that it was the most painstaking parts of the cover process that Delmaire relished most. “I remember listening to the radio-drama adaptation of Jean Giono’s A King Alone and zoning out while painting the million folds of the dress,” she says. “It was fun.”