In Memoriam: Françoise Gilot (1921-2023)

In Memoriam: Françoise Gilot (1921-2023)

The French painter and recipient of the country’s Légion d’Honneur died in New York City at the age of 101.
The French painter and recipient of the country’s Légion d’Honneur died in New York City at the age of 101.

I n 2022, aged 100, the artist Françoise Gilot told the New York Times: ‘I see life as a labyrinth. You don’t fight it. You go where it takes you. You go the other way.’

Gilot, who has died in New York aged 101, was speaking from a position of experience and wisdom. Over the course of her long and accomplished career, she navigated those labyrinthine angles and edges of life with determination and character.

‘The entire Sotheby’s community is saddened at the passing of Françoise Gilot,’ said Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, Oliver Barker. ‘An exceptional painter, printmaker and memoirist, she blazed a trail in an era when partners of great artists were expected to be subsumed into the role of passive muse. Gilot’s determination to maintain her sense of self and creative agency stands as an inspiration and testament to her innate self-belief as an artist of substance.’

‘She was a brilliant artist, author and a true genius. A stunning person with great style. She once said to me that she will only stop painting when she stops breathing.’
- Benjamin Doller, Chairman Sotheby's Americas

‘She was a brilliant artist, author and a true genius,’ commented Chairman of Sotheby’s America, Benjamin Doller. ‘A stunning person with great style. She once said to me that she will only stop painting when she stops breathing.’

Gilot was already an accomplished painter when she met Picasso in 1943, at Le Catalan restaurant in Paris. Born in 1921, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, she had gravitated towards art from an early age to the dismay of her middle-class parents. When they met, Picasso was in the final stages of his relationship with Dora Maar and was immediately drawn to Gilot’s confidence, talent and charisma. He invited her to visit his studio where the inevitable pass was made. Despite Gilot’s initial misgivings, the pair embarked on a relationship that would last a decade, produce two children, spur each other on to reach new heights in their respective artistry and ultimately end with Gilot walking out, refusing to put up with Picasso’s intransigent infidelity and possessiveness.

Francoise Gilot, 1953 the year she met Pablo Picasso. (AFP via Getty Images)

Yet despite the tensions, their relationship was, at its height, a meeting of minds. Gilot herself later described their time living and working together, in their South of France home, as working ‘mano a mano’: when ‘two artists work side by side, sharing the same challenge, the same ideal, as, for example, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque did during Cubism. The term also emphasises the hand, and the strange fraternity that must exist between artistic partners in which emulation must never degenerate into rivalry. Thus, it seems an apt metaphor for what happened between Picasso and myself.’

And over the course of their relationship, Picasso would enjoy a vigorous resurgence in his own work, prompting his friend and biographer John Richardson to later observe that Picasso ‘took more from her than she took from him’. She in turn reflected that Picasso treated women like ‘goddesses and doormats.’

In their final months together, Picasso grew increasingly possessive of Gilot, whilst stubbornly refusing to give up his infidelities, a paradox found in works such as Femme assise en costume vert. By the time this painting was executed, Gilot had irrevocably decided to leave. In response to this, Picasso painted numerous portraits of her, many of which show Gilot either seated in an armchair or involved in domestic activity; as though Picasso felt in painting her that he could keep her as a presence in his life. Only a few months after Femme assise en costume vert was painted, Gilot would leave Picasso to begin a new life of her own in Paris, with their two children Claude and Paloma.

A decade after their split, in 1964, Gilot dissected their relationship in her memoir Life with Picasso. Writing in an unsentimental, even-handed fashion, Gilot praised her former partner’s passion, innate genius and capacity for fatherliness – while frankly revealing the euphoric highs and dank lows – and caused a sensation in France. It sold over one million copies in its first year.

The memoir outraged Picasso’s loyal allies and fans but served as an inspiration for younger generations. A 2019 reissue was hailed in the New Yorker as a ‘proto-feminist classic’, serving as the inspiration for the film Surviving Picasso.

Pablo Picasso and Francoise Gilot, Vallauris, France, circa 1952. (Photo by Robert DOISNEAU/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)
'Françoise said a dialogue is not a monologue, and with her, Picasso had a type of dialogue.’
- Sotheby's Europe Deputy Chairman, Michael Sandhofer-Berger

‘On the whole, she felt he gave her more positives than negatives,’ said Sotheby’s Europe Deputy Chairman Michael Sandhofer-Berger. ‘And Françoise gave him a very positive time overall. She said a dialogue is not a monologue, and with her, Picasso had a type of dialogue.’

In the immediate aftermath of their split, Picasso peevishly attempted to prevent galleries showing her paintings. Following the publication of Life With Picasso in 1964, he cut off all contact with Gilot and their children. Today, her works are in collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In 1991, after decades of painting, drawing, poetry, writing and lecturing, Gilot was inducted into the French Légion d'Honneur – at that time, one of only a handful of women to be admitted.

And as belated recognition of her art grew, a major show was staged, co-curated by Gilot, at New York’s Gagosian Gallery in 2012. ‘Picasso and Françoise Gilot, Paris-Vallauris, 1943-1953’ revisited her decade with Picasso, with works from each, presented in dialogue, demonstrating the unique creative dynamic that sparked between the pair.

Françoise Gilot Paloma à la Guitare (1965) Lot sold: 922,500GBP

Acclaim for Gilot continued into her old age, with projects such as a book of sketches, made during travels to India, Senegal and Venice between 1974 and 1981 being published in 2018 and in 2021, her 1965 portrait of her daughter, Paloma à la Guitare, selling for $1.3 million at Sotheby’s.

In 1955, Gilot married painter Luc Simon, a union that ended six years later. In 1970, she met virologist Jonas Salk in California, marrying him soon after and remaining together until his death in 1995, after which Gilot settled in Manhattan, where she lived until her death. She is survived by her daughter, Aurelia, from her marriage with Simon, as well as her two children with Picasso, Claude and Paloma, and four grandchildren.

‘You imagine people will be interested in you?’ Picasso was said to have sneered as they separated. ‘They won’t ever, really, just for yourself. Even if you think people like you, it will only be a kind of curiosity they will have about a person whose life has touched mine so intimately.’

Picasso was wrong. With resilience, ambition and creative curiosity, Françoise Gilot found her own path through the labyrinth of her life, leaving us with a history that will inspire generations to come.

Thérèse Crémieux, Françoise Gilot and Sotheby's Benjamin Doller in conversation.
Thérèse Crémieux, Françoise Gilot and Sotheby's Benjamin Doller in conversation.




Impressionist & Modern Art

About the Author

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

arrow Created with Sketch. Back To Top