Ten Takes On Paula Rego

Ten Takes On Paula Rego

Ahead of the late Portuguese-born artist Paula Rego’s ‘Meadow’ (1996) coming to auction as part of the prestigious Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction on June 27th, Sotheby’s celebrates this charismatic painter, feminist icon and lyrical storyteller’s life and work.
Ahead of the late Portuguese-born artist Paula Rego’s ‘Meadow’ (1996) coming to auction as part of the prestigious Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction on June 27th, Sotheby’s celebrates this charismatic painter, feminist icon and lyrical storyteller’s life and work.

Inspired at various times by the folk traditions of her native Portugal, Surrealism, Old Masters and pop culture, the late Paula Rego’s unsettling, politically-charged work explored the dynamics of human cruelty, brutality and power in the context of interpersonal relationships, political systems and social structures.

D ark themes remained consistent across Paula Rego's long career. Born in Lisbon in 1935, she grew up in Catholic Portugal before studying at the Slade in London between 1952 and 1955. In 1962, she became associated with the loose cabal of emerging artists in the London Group, which counted among its members Frank Auerbach and David Hockney. She soon established herself as an agile and forceful artist, a defiant feminist and progressive voice within the barnacled male-dominated art world of mid-century Europe.

An artist whose palette was continually refreshed by contemporary and historic influences and ideas, she soared across numerous technical and ideological peaks during her long career. Moving from a Surrealist-inflected approach early in her career, by the time she came to 1994’s Dog Women series, her powerful voice made itself known in these career-defining animalistic depictions of women, flipping notions of debasement. This is something also evident in Meadow, where the male figures find themselves visibly diminished and dominated by female figures, fuelled with kinetic rage and exulting in their own power.

As Meadow comes to auction in the Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction, including the Ralph I. Goldenberg Collection in London on June 25, 2024, read on for ten hot takes on Paula Rego’s dramatic life and work.

Paula Rego's work was “the product of a life felt intensely"

Drawing upon details of her own extraordinary life, politics, art history, on literature, folk legends, myths and fairytales, Rego’s work at its heart is an exploration of human relationships. "No artist has brought me to tears, mid-gallery, like Paula Rego," says critic and author Hettie Judah. "The righteousness, the pain, the vengeful fury, the sadness bound up in her paintings is devastating. She had a burning sense of injustice, and of the cruelties done to (and sometimes by) women in the name of love. Her paintings are the product of a life felt intensely."

Paula loved listening to opera while working

Rigoletto at Teatro La Fenice hand bill (via Wikimedia Commons)

Operas by Verdi - especially Rigoletto and La Traviata – were favoured during Rego's morning painting sessions. The mood softened after lunch and she would listen to ‘fado’ - traditional Portuguese laments, by singers such as Amália and Camané - while working.

Rego was an avid football fan

Paula Rego was a passionate supporter of the Benfica football club. This was a deep-rooted affair, as her grandfather was one of the club’s founders.

And she also loved Walt Disney

“I love Disney," Rego told Ben Eastham of The White Review. "No, he didn’t sanitise. His work is grotesque. There are many grotesque moments in Disney. Snow White, when she’s being caught by the branches of the trees when she’s running away. Pinocchio is pretty grotesque, when they all change into donkeys. I am a great fan of Disney. Now they do everything on computers, but before, they drew everything”

She preferred to depict people as animals as it was easier to do “shocking” things to them

“I always know the people in my pictures," Rego told The White Review. "Very often they take the form of monkeys and bears and all sorts of things. It’s easier if you make them into animals because you can do things to animals that you can’t do to people because it’s too shocking. You can cut off a person’s tail — like in Wife Cuts Off Red Monkey’s Tail - which is a form of revenge for her.”

Rego’s work inspired by an abortion rights referendum in Portugal brought the issue to wider awareness in the country.

Paula Rego

After Portugal voted to maintain the illegality of abortion in a 1998 referendum, a furious Rego produced a series of prints Untitled: The Abortion Pastels, depicting the grim reality faced by Portuguese women who had to resort to illegal backstreet operations. The series was published widely in national media ahead of a repeat referendum on the issue in 2007, which reversed the earlier result, legitimising abortion. Rego’s powerful series was credited with helping to shift public opinion.

Rego's depictions sometimes evolved from mockery to sympathy 

Island of the Lights from Pinocchio

“I can punish people, or mock people I don’t like” she told The White Review. “[But] sometimes something happens whilst you’re doing the picture that, although you loathe the person you’re punishing, halfway through something happens and you begin to like them. Then there’s something perverse where you begin not to punish them but to praise them…I did a picture called after Salazar - our dictator for forty years, my father hated him. I did a picture called Salazar Vomiting his Mother Country (1960). I was doing this picture and suddenly I felt sorry for Salazar. Can you imagine? I mean it’s so perverse. I felt sorry for him. Anything can happen in pictures. That’s good isn’t it?”

She was close to L.S. Lowry while studying at the Slade


“The only English painter I ever got along well with at school, at the Slade, was Lowry,” she told The White Review. “He was wonderful to me, so kind. Lowry came in, I had a tutorial with him, and he said, ‘I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do this’, and then he wanted to buy a picture of mine. It didn’t quite come to it, but he was always a friend, and he understood, he just understood”.

Her 1998 painting The Cadet and His Sister set a personal record for Rego at Sotheby's in 2015

Over the years, Sotheby's has been proud to include a number of Paula Rego's drawings and paintings in highly-successful sales worldwide, including 1988's masterpiece The Cadet and His Sister, which sold in 2015 for £1.4m (an artist's record), Looking Out (1997) which also sold 2015, for £965,000 and Good Dog (1994) which sold in November 2021 for £1,188,700.

Rego evolved from being influenced by Surrealists to Old Masters

Her early work, heavily influenced by Joan Miró and the Surrealists, verged on abstraction - in part, a reaction to her conservative training. In 1990, Rego was invited to become the first Associate Artist at London’s National Gallery. Around this time, her practice underwent a notable shift: favouring pastels over oils, Rego evolved toward the clear, linear representational style, with strong influences from a range of artists such as Velázquez, Courbet, Crivelli and Millet.

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