“A painter, his model, and an intelligent woman, she is a superb witness to Picasso as an artist and to his views on art.” Thus wrote art critic Aline Saarinen in the New York Times when Françoise Gilot’s controversial, best-selling memoir Life With Picasso first came out in 1964, acknowledging what has since become even clearer: That the book is far more than a titillating tell-all, and that its author is far more than the former mistress of a famous man.
Indeed, Gilot’s account of her decade as Picasso’s companion has stood the test of time not merely as a highly enjoyable read filled with firsthand anecdotes about Henri Matisse, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, and other luminaries of the era but also, in the words of one NPR reviewer, as “an invaluable work of art history” – hence its recent reissue by New York Review of Books Classics.
Gilot met Picasso in a Paris restaurant in 1943, shortly after her first formal exhibition opened. She was 21, he 61. She moved in with him in 1946 and remained his companion until an acrimonious split in 1953, bearing two children during their time together. Claude would become a photographer; Paloma, a jewelry designer – most famously for Tiffany & Co.
Although Gilot had already gained recognition as an emerging talent when her relationship with Picasso began, her ambitions might well have receded in the face of his artistic stature and domineering temperament. Instead, she went on to execute more than 6,000 paintings and works on paper, some now in the collections of such major institutions as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Pompidou Center in Paris. An avowed colorist, she has called Matisse her “god.” At 97, she can still be found brush in hand in her apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
This month, an exhibition of her monotypes titled Cartography of Hidden Worlds opens at Mac-Gryder Gallery in New Orleans. A monotype is a single print created, in this artist’s case, by painting oil-based lithographic ink onto a plexiglass plate and then transferring the image onto paper with a press. Its highly versatile, painterly qualities made it a natural fit for Gilot, allowing her to create layered and textural effects, further enhanced by the addition of collage. The luminous colors of these works draw the viewer in immediately; their subtle complexity holds the gaze.
Considering how inextricably Gilot’s name is linked with Picasso’s, it is startling to consider that she has been living a full life without him for 66 years now and instructive to re flect on who she was before meeting him. Born in the affluent Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1921, she was the only child of cultivated parents. Although her mother was a talented watercolorist and encouraged her artistic inclinations, her strict agronomist father steered her toward international law, which she studied after earning a degree in English literature from Cambridge University.
She credits the tragedy of World War II and life under the Occupation with giving her the courage to pursue her true vocation. As she told Charlie Rose in a 1998 television interview, “in a way I thought, I don’t know how long we’ll all remain alive, so I’m going to do what I want.” She believes her improbable relationship with Picasso was also a product of “this doomsday type of situation:” “If I had met Picasso in normal circumstances, nothing would have happened between himself and myself.”
Life without Picasso has involved two marriages – one, for seven years, to the painter Luc Simon, with whom Gilot had a daughter, Aurélia, and a second to the renowned American medical researcher Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine. She met Salk in 1969 during a stay in California and married him the following year; he overcame her reluctance by agreeing to live separately for months at a time. The arrangement proved a happy one, lasting until his death in 1995, which hit her so hard that she found herself temporarily unable to paint.
It is easy to imagine that Gilot wearied long ago of discussing the shadow that Picasso may have cast over her development as an artist. As she told Charlie Rose more than 20 years ago, “you can be in the shadow when you are young. What does it matter? It’s better sometimes than too much sun too soon.”
Françoise Gilot: Monotypes
From August 3 through September 30, 2019
Mac-Gryder Gallery, New Orleans
Article published in the August 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.