Painter Françoise Gilot, whose 1964 memoir detailing her tumultuous, decade-long relationship with Pablo Picasso became an international bestseller, died June 6 in New York at the age of 101. Having met Picasso when she was just twenty-one and he forty years older, she gave birth to two of his children—Claude Picasso and Paloma Picasso—before becoming, by his admission, the only woman ever to leave him. Picasso pressured galleries not to work with her, but Gilot, intent on rebuilding her career, continued to paint and to exhibit. At her death, her works were held in the collections of more than a dozen major institutions, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and her paintings—as evidenced by the 2021 sale of Paloma à la guitare, a 1965 portrait of her daughter, for $1.3 million—had broken the million-dollar mark in value.
Françoise Gilot was born November 26, 1921, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, the only daughter of an agronomist father and a mother who had studied art history, ceramics, and watercolor painting. Gilot was drawn at a young age to art, and her mother tutored her in watercolors and India ink, eschewing such impermanent media as pencil and pastels on the grounds that she believed that they led artists to rely too much on erasers. Forced by her father, who had hoped for a son, to pursue a degree in international law, Gilot obtained her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne at the age of seventeen before going on to earn a degree in English literature from Cambridge University, and then to enroll in law school in Rennes, continuing to paint on the side. Shortly after the German invasion of France in 1940, she dropped out to pursue art full-time.
Gilot’s first exhibition took place in Paris in 1943. That same year, she met Picasso in a Parisian café, when he approached her and a female friend. Upon learning that the two were artists, Picasso expressed disbelief and invited them to his studio. Gilot accepted the invitation and continued to visit, though Picasso was at the time involved in relationships with photographer Dora Maar and with muse Marie-Thérèse Walter. Later describing her own impending affair with the Spanish painter in the pages of her memoir as “a catastrophe I didn’t want to avoid,” Gilot engaged in a relationship with Picasso that would be marked by both passion and violence, as well as by the birth of the couple’s two children. Having been reluctant to move in with the temperamental artist, she discovered that once she did, he turned his attention to conquering other women. In 1953, she told him she was leaving.
“You imagine people will be interested in you?” he asked her. “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 touched mine so intimately.”
Undaunted, Gilot departed, taking her children with her, and persevered with her artistic endeavors. Two years later, she married French artist Luc Simon. The couple had a daughter, Aurelia, before divorcing. In 1964, she published Life with Picasso. Penned with Carlton Lake, the revealing memoir incensed Picasso, who, having failed on three occasions to block its publication, refused to see the couple’s children ever again. Though the book earned Gilot enmity from Picasso’s supporters, it was tremendously well received. In 1996, the volume served as the basis for the Merchant-Ivory film Surviving Picasso; today, it is considered essential reading on the storied artist.
Gilot in 1970 wed virologist Jonas Salk, father of the polio vaccine, to whom she remained married until his death in 1995. Her son, Claude Picasso, is the director of the Picasso Administration, which oversees the artist’s estate, and her daughter, Paloma Picasso, is a designer of perfume and jewelry. In 2018, Gilot released three sketchbooks documenting her travels to Venice, India, and Senegal. She continued to exhibit her work through 2021, and was notably a subject of Gagosian Gallery’s 2012 exhibition “Picasso and Françoise Gilot: Paris-Vallauris, 1943–1953,” curated by renowned Picasso scholar John Richardson, who had originally condemned her memoir. Reviewing the show for Artforum, Robert Pincus-Witten cast Gilot as “redoubtable,” noting her influence on Picasso’s work, as no critic would likely have dared to do at the time she left him, or for some time afterward.
“As young women, [my generation] were taught to keep silent,” she told the New York Times in 2022. “We were taught early that taking second place is easier than first. You tell yourself that’s all right,” she said, “but it’s not all right.”