Françoise Delbart, actress immortalised in the Robert Doisneau photograph ‘The Kiss’ – obituary

Françoise Delbart with the legendary image in 2005
Françoise Delbart with the legendary image in 2005 - Sipa/Shutterstock
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Françoise Delbart, who has died in Normandy aged 93, was formerly an actress, but it was none of the roles in her brief career that made her face familiar to millions; that happened decades after a photograph for which she had posed in the 1950s became, as “The Kiss”, an imperishable image of Paris as the City of Love.

In 1950, the photographer Robert Doisneau was commissioned by Life magazine to shoot a piece on springtime romance in the French capital. He saw a pair of aspiring actors kiss in a Left Bank café and asked them to do so again for his Rolleiflex camera in various locations. Among these were the Place de la Concorde, the Rue de Rivoli and, finally, in front of the town hall, the Hôtel de Ville.

Although Doisneau was known for the seeming spontaneity of his black-and-white street pictures, in fact these were often staged, albeit in a naturalistic way. “I don’t photograph life as it is, but as I would like it to be,” he observed. He gave the couple 500 francs for their trouble; the article was published and then promptly forgotten for the next 35 years.

In the early 1980s, a keen-eyed commercial publisher came across the town hall image and thought it would make a good poster. It seemed to strike a chord, especially with young people, and within a few years it had sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Other reproductions soon featured on items from key fobs to tea towels.

The Kiss
The Kiss - Robert DOISNEAU/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

The photograph’s appeal was in part that it encapsulated a now vanished and perhaps more elegant era. Primarily, however, viewers responded to the potency of the embrace, a moment in which young lovers lost themselves in one another.

They appeared careless of the other Parisians going about their business around them (although as was delightfully revealed later, the man in the beret behind them was in fact an Irish auctioneer, Jack Costello, captured on his one and only trip abroad).

The success of the poster helped to revive interest in Doisneau, then in his seventies, but to his distress it also had less happy consequences. Under French law, citizens own the rights to their likeness.

In 1993, a couple came forward and claimed 100,000 francs for invasion of privacy. Denise and Jean-Louis Lavergne, who were printers, believed it was them in the picture and that they had been snapped by Doisneau as they happened to pass his lens.

Of course, Doisneau knew otherwise, as did Françoise Delbart. Encouraged by her husband, she now made herself known in turn, producing the signed prints of the original photographs which Doisneau’s laboratory had given her at the time. “They were trampling on a memory that was mine,” she said of the Lavergnes’ lawsuit.

She had posed for Doisneau with her boyfriend at the time, Jacques Carteaud, whom she recalled “looked a bit like [the actor] Burt Lancaster”. They had split up nine months later, however, when he had met someone else. He had subsequently become a wine grower and refused to join in the action.

In the event, a court ruled that no one’s rights had been infringed. The Lavergnes had no proof that they were the couple in the photograph, while Françoise Delbart had already been paid for her participation, rather like an extra in a film.

Nonetheless, she negotiated a settlement of 50,000 francs in return for not appealing and by way of renouncing any past or future rights in the image.

Doisneau, bruised by his encounter with commercial realities, died the next year. Carteaud died in 2006. A year earlier, Françoise Delbart had put her original print of the photograph up for auction. The estimated price was 10-20,000 euros, but it was bought by a Swiss collector for 155,000 euros.

Françoise Delbart was born in 1930. After studying at the Cours Simon drama school, she made about a dozen appearances on both the stage and the screen in the decade from 1953.

In the cinema, she had supporting roles in films such as Les Grandes Familles (1958), opposite Jean Gabin in a tale of revenge adapted from Maurice Druon’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel. Her theatrical career included a part in the first production of a play by Romain Gary, Johnnie Coeur, which opened in 1961 at the Théâtre de la Michodière, Paris.

The previous year, however, she had married Alain Bornet, a screenwriter and later a director of advertisements and industry training films. She gave up acting, although she did do voiceovers for many of her husband’s productions.

They lived in the 17th arrondissement of the capital until his death 10 years ago. During the Covid pandemic, Françoise Delbart moved to Évreux, Normandy, to be closer to family. Into her nineties, she remained a dedicated smoker and continued to enjoy a glass or two of whisky.

Françoise Delbart, born 1930, died December 25 2023

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.