Françoise Gilot, a painter who wrote a famed 1964 memoir detailing her tumultuous decade-long relationship with Pablo Picasso, has died at 101. The New York Times reported that she died in New York on Tuesday.
Long dismissed as one of Picasso’s “muses,” Gilot has in recent decades been reappraised as an artist in her own right. She had energetically worked alongside Picasso, however, and even maintained a contract with Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, the same dealer who represented him at various points.
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“In the course of her long life, Françoise Gilot has consistently been true to herself, even as she has repeatedly invented herself,” Markus Müller writes in the new book Picasso: The Women in His Life: An Homage. “She had to wait until her one-hundredth year to see a work of hers—an affectionate portrait of her daughter, Paloma, dating from 1965—break the magical one-million euro barrier at auction; but in an age in which people are more interested in price than in value, this can undoubtedly be read as a kind of material consecration of her life’s work.”
That work, titled Paloma à la Guitare, shows the young woman with a feathered hat seated cross-legged in a chair. With its cool colors and its background split up into intersecting, abstract geometric planes, it is an emblematic work for Gilot, whose work drew on Picasso’s modernist style while also proposing her own take on it.
In 2021, the painting sold for $1.3 million at a Sotheby’s sale devoted to women artists, generating a record for Gilot.
Part of the reason is that Gilot is almost always discussed in the context of Picasso is that she obtained an unusual status among his lovers. Of the four relationships discussed in the 1964 memoir, Gilot was the only one who left on her own terms. The other relationships—with Dora Maar, Marie-Thérèse Walter, and Olga Khokhlova—were broken off by Picasso, often acrimoniously, due in no small part to the fact that, in Gilot’s recollection, Picasso pitted the women against one another.
Writing that Picasso had a “Bluebeard complex,” Gilot says, in her memoir, “He preferred to have life go on and to have all those women who had shared his life at one moment or another still letting out little peeps and cries of joy or pain and making a few gestures like disjointed dolls, just to prove there was some life left in them, that it hung by a thread, and that he held the other end of the thread. From time to time they would provide a humorous or dramatic or sometimes tragic side to things, and that was all grist to his mill.”
In another famous remark, Gilot would write that Picasso treated women like “goddesses and doormats.”
But Gilot’s time with Picasso was different. In her memoir, titled Life with Picasso and written with Carlton Lake, she describes pushing back against the demands that she be a passive partner while also occasionally falling prey to his manipulations. She left him in 1953—and went on to outlive him by 50 years.
The Bluebeard remark was one that Gilot seemed particularly proud of. “Don’t forget that I was Bluebeard’s seventh wife,” she would later say. (Gilot and Picasso never officially married, as he stayed legally married to Khokhlova until her death 1955, though they had separated some 20 years prior.)
Françoise Gilot was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, in 1921 to a middle-class family. Her father, who ran a perfume factory, did not think art was an appropriate career for Gilot, whom he wanted to study law. Her grandmother, however, nurtured her as a painter.
Gilot met Picasso, who was 40 years her senior, at a restaurant in Paris in 1943. He had been with Maar at the time, but he invited her to his studio anyway. Gilot knew their liaison would prove a “catastrophe,” as she once stated, but she pursued his overture, and a relationship ensued.
When he later insisted she live with him to push their relationship forward, she felt unsure, then ultimately did so. Because she moved in with him, she caused a rift with her family. In her memoir, Gilot recounts that her father only began to make amends with him after she and Picasso severed ties.
Life with Picasso does not offer a rosy view of their relationship, but it does not represent it as entirely loveless either. Gilot recounts one instance in which Picasso threatened to throw her off a bridge during an argument and even pressed her toward the edge of one. She invited him to live up to his promise, but he did not end up doing so. And yet, she also recalls Picasso as a passionate artist and, at times, a caring father to their two children, Claude and Paloma.
In their home in the south of France, Gilot set up her own studio, working on paintings depicting herself and her children. These works draw equally on the rich hues of Henri Matisse and the fractured geometries of Georges Braque, and seem to offer more sentimental, less violent views of subjects that recurred regularly throughout Picasso’s art.
One 1952 self-portrait, painted the year she received her first solo show, at Galerie Louise Leiris in Paris, features the artist seated confidently, with one leg folded beneath the other. As she casts her arms around one knee, she seems assured. This stands in sharp contrast to some of Picasso’s renditions of Gilot, in which her expressions are typically wiped of any psychology.
After leaving Picasso the next year, Gilot would wed the painter Luc Simon in 1955. Their marriage dissolved six years later.
Gilot started writing Life with Picasso with the journalist Carlton Lake in 1961. By the next year, she had set aside two days of her week to speaking with Lake about her time with Picasso and then re-editing his copy as needed.
Upon its release, Life with Picasso became a bestseller—and the subject of controversy. The New York Times praised the book as a better-than-average memoir with “importance,” noting that Gilot had still been sure to assess Picasso’s “genius” with respect. John Richardson, who would later become Picasso’s biographer, would go on to feud publicly with Lake over the book. Critics in France were more divided, with one French art journal writing, “Françoise Gilot has betrayed Picasso.” Douglas Cooper, who collected Picasso’s work, reportedly burned copies of the book during a party.
During a visit to La Jolla, California, Gilot met the virologist Jonas Salk, and in 1970, they began a relationship. They later married and remained together until his death in 1995. “It was love because I admired his commitment to the human race, his humanity, and he was a fine man,” Gilot later recalled. “But I can’t say I felt passionately about him. With Pablo it was different.”
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The rest of her career saw her continuing to make art, publishing her poetry, and even gaining some acclaim in New York, where she set up a studio toward the end of the ’70s.
The ghost of Picasso has continued to follow just about any mention of Gilot. In 2012, Richardson organized a show about Picasso and Gilot’s relationship that featured a number of her works placed alongside his.
“That the French have made Ms. Gilot an officer of the Legion of Honor is perhaps not so much a testament to her work as a visual artist as it is a recognition that her dedication to insisting on her side of the story, and her right to tell it—in art, books, lectures and exhibitions like this one—is, ultimately, a feminist enterprise,” wrote Maika Pollack in a review for the Observer.
In 2019, Life with Picasso was reprinted. “Gilot’s memoir shines, now, as a proto-feminist classic, the tale of a young woman who found herself in the thrall of a dazzling master and ended up breaking free,” wrote Alexandra Schwartz in the New Yorker.
Speaking to the New York Times in 2022, Gilot, who had recently turned 100, said, “I see life as a labyrinth. You don’t fight it. You go where it takes you. You go the other way.”