When the French artist Françoise Gilot was five, she travelled with her family to the Swiss Alps, where she was struck by the extraordinary polychrome meadows and verdant forests. With the sun in her eyes, she asked her father, a literary yet fiercely rational businessman and agronomist, if her view was “objective or subjective”. In other words, did they both see the same meadow, as it was? Monsieur Gilot had little time for such fancies and replied curtly: “the retina is the same for everybody”. Dissatisfied, Mademoiselle Gilot struck back: “Yes, Father, the retina is the same for everybody, but the imagination is not.”
It was around this time that Gilot turned to her parents and said simply: “I want to become a painter…” in the manner in which some children might say they want to become a firefighter. So began nearly a century of art-making as Gilot spent significant periods in Paris, London, California and New York, integrating practices developed from synthetic Cubism and geometric abstraction. In her personal commitment and restless passion for stylistic invention, and not to mention her steely-minded convictions in her own ways of seeing that would not let the older men in her life tell her what was what, she will be remembered for much more beyond the turbulent years she spent as Madame Picasso.
Gilot was born into an haute-bourgeoise family in Neuilly-sur-Seine, an affluent suburb of west Paris, in 1921. The parents’ response to their precocious daughter was mixed: Gilot’s artistic mother, an accomplished watercolourist and ceramicist, ultimately gave way to her rational husband, who wanted Françoise to go into law. His logic was that with a good education and hard work, a career in the Parisian professions would be assured. “If you want to be an attorney or a physician, that’s fine”, Gilot remembered her father saying, “but if you want to be a painter you have to be a great painter or nothing.” She agreed. But first Gilot studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and English literature at the British Institute in Paris and the Sorbonne, graduating in 1939 just as war arrived in France.
A staunch anti-collaborator who feared the imminent occupation of Paris, Gilot’s father sent her to the town of Rennes in Brittany to begin her legal training. Like many of her generation who grew up during war and occupation, and who had to become mature from one day to the next, she felt an imperative to live life in the shadow of catastrophe; this only magnified her desire to make art. “I don’t know how long we will all remain alive,” she said, “so I will do what I want.” It was during this period that she resolved to become an artist, and abandoned her legal studies several times before ultimately passing her exams in 1942. Gilot began private lessons with the bohemian Hungarian Jewish painter Endre Rozsda, a proponent of Surrealism and lyrical abstraction. By May 1943, at the age of only 22, and under the watchful eye of plain-clothed Nazi officials, she staged her first exhibition in Paris. Paintings from this period include The Hawk (1943), which envisages a taxidermy bird of prey as a still life and set against the tops of a Parisian boulevard outside. It is elegance and ferocity in one picture.
Life with Picasso
That same month, Gilot experienced another life-changing moment. While out for dinner at Le Catalan on the rue des Grands-Augustins, and accompanied by her friend Geneviève Aliquot and the actor Alain Cuny, who was then a darling of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty style, Gilot caught Pablo Picasso’s eye. Characteristically undeterred by the fact that he was mid-course with his lover, the Surrealist photographer Dora Maar, Picasso invited Gilot to his studio. Picasso was 40 years Gilot’s senior, and the two began a romantic relationship that led to two children, Claude and Paloma. In her memoir Life with Picasso (1964), co-written with the art critic Carlton Lake, Gilot recalls Picasso’s devotion and intimacy, the creative ballast that they maintained for one another, as well as his violence. At the height of a wild argument about his “Don Juan” infidelities, as she put it, Gilot recounts Picasso putting a cigarette to her cheek: “He must have expected me to pull away, but I was determined not to give him the satisfaction.”
Despite Picasso’s desperate attempts to halt its publication, Gilot dedicated Life with Picasso “to Pablo” and often stressed the subtle importance of its title: it does not have the possessive “my”, but is the whole picture of a life. La vie. But within a decade, life with Picasso had become unbearable: on 20 September 1953, Gilot did the unthinkable and became the only one of Picasso’s mistresses to walk out on him. “No woman leaves a man like me”, he said, and Gilot did just that.
Seeking solace, Gilot married her childhood friend Luc Simon, another Modernist artist but one with a much softer temperament, in 1955. With Simon, Gilot gave birth to Aurélia in 1956, the same year as a transformational visit to Tunisia, in which she began working through a nomadic-inspired “wanderer” motif lost in deserts and mountains that perhaps spoke to her increasing sense that she did not know where she belonged. Gilot divorced Simon in 1962.
By now, Gilot was associated with the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, led by Sonia Delaunay and Nicolas de Staël. Fast becoming an established figure on her own terms in the faltering School of Paris, a scene that she recognised was “no longer the centre”, Gilot hesitated between London and New York, before settling in the swinging 60s stronghold of Chelsea, west London, in a studio in Sydney Close, between 1964 and 1968. It was here that she produced her most celebrated work: Paloma à la Guitare (1965). It’s easy to see, in the jagged forms of perspective, something of her former lover, Picasso, and in the bright bold blues something of his rival Henri Matisse. (Gilot knew Matisse well, and published Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art in 1990.) When Paloma à la Guitare was put up for auction by Sotheby’s in London in 2021, the lower estimate was £120,000, but it sold for seven times that, at £922,500. The art market woke up with a start to the fact that being a muse of a great artist did not preclude being a great artist oneself.
Following another chance encounter at a restaurant, this time in San Diego in 1969, Gilot was introduced to Jonas Salk, the American polio vaccine pioneer. After a few false starts, they ultimately bonded over a love of modern architecture and a firm sense of one another’s professional independence. Gilot and Salk married in 1970 and stayed together until his death in 1995. Spending around half of the year apart, they shared residences in La Jolla, New York, and Paris. Gilot’s mature work demonstrated her remarkable versatility as a colourist: a painting like Red and Gold (1978) was conceived of lateral abstract shapes before Gilot transformed it using the horizontal alignment principles of landscape painting. Accolades followed: in 1978, she was made a member of France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, which honours significant contributions to arts and literature, and in 2009 was made Officier de la Legion d’Honneur, the highest order of merit for French civilians.
Gilot is survived by her three children: Aurélia Engel, an architect; Claude Picasso, the director of Picasso Administration, his father’s estate; and Paloma Picasso, the fashion and jewellery designer; and by four grandchildren.
In the last years of her mother’s life, Aurélia remembered that Gilot’s patron saint was St Francis of Assisi, who is invariably depicted as a whisperer to the birds. If Picasso’s white dove has become inextricably linked to the international peace movement, then one cannot help but see the rich aviary of images found in Gilot’s works, from Egyptian-inspired bird-creatures to intricately patterned Orphic warblers, as symbols of both freedom and constraint for a woman who pushed back against patriarchs and patriarchy and became an accomplished artist shown around the world. “It’s a bad idea that women have to concede,” she said in 2016. “Why should they? That wasn’t for me.”
• Marie Françoise Gilot; born Neuilly-sur-Seine, Paris 26 November 1921; partner of Pablo Picasso 1944-53 (one daughter, one son); married 1955 Luc Simon (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1962), 1970 Jonas Salk (died 1995); died New York City 6 June 2023