Francoise Gilot

I employ the word “muse” on this blog always with complimentary intent. I myself am a muse to artists, and I revel in that role, as you all know. I even made sure to incorporate it in my blog title. But the word “muse” alone is woefully inadequate to describe Francoise Gilot, Picasso’s companion for ten years, and the mother of two of his children, Paloma and Claude.

Of all the biographies I’ve had to research for this blog, none has absorbed me, impressed me, and inspired me more than Francoise Gilot’s. I have come to admire her immensely. Fascinating, beautiful, intelligent, and accomplished, Francoise is a woman who stands fully on her own. Her “attachment” to Picasso need not define her life, her vision, or her place in history. While I am certainly no expert on Picasso’s psychology (nor would I want to be!), I will go out on a limb and editorialize for a moment. I believe the biggest blunder of Picasso’s personal life was his failure to hold onto Francoise Gilot. He attracted a woman of great depth, ambition, intellect, and artistic talent, and blew it in the end with his abuse, disrespect, and mistreatment. Major fuck up.

You are probably all familiar with Robert Capa’s famous photograph of Picasso and Francoise cavorting on the beach. What a great shot. Francoise is radiant, and I love that Picasso is holding the umbrella for her. That’s right, Pablo. Treat her like a lady!

Born in the Paris suburbs in 1921, Francoise knew at the age of five that she wanted to be an artist. While her mother and grandmother were supportive of her aspiration, her autocratic father, Emile, was not. His own dreams for Francoise included law school and a prestigious career in the mainstream. She dutifully attended classes and exhibited solid academic ability. She earned a degree in philosophy from the University of Paris and a degree in English Literature from the British Institute. But Francoise doggedly held onto her artistic pursuits throughout her youth, and had to do it all covertly so as not to anger her father. She learned etching and drypoint. She sought out art classes and instructors to give her guidance and support. She set up an art studio in her grandmother’s attic. She appeased her demanding, despotic father by attending law school, all the while knowing that her passion for art would not, and could not, be quelled.

In 1940, Francoise joined other students in Paris for a rally at the Arc De Triomphe to honor the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and commemorate the armistice of World War 1 – a brazen, impudent act since Paris, at that time, was already under German Occupation. Needless to say, the German soldiers didn’t take kindly to the students’ activism. They harassed them, a melee ensued, and many were arrested. Francoise found her name placed on the “watch list” and was considered a hostage. She was “trapped” in Paris for months, and had to report daily to the local police station.

Picasso’s drawing, Portrait of Francoise, from 1946:

When Francoise finally announced to her father that she intended to devote herself completely to her art, Emile Gilot became livid. He cut her off from the family, and their relationship was irreparably damaged. Resilient, resourceful, and determined, Francoise moved in with her sympathetic grandmother, and supported herself by giving horseback riding lessons in the Bois du Bologne.

In 1943, Francoise was in Paris for an exhibit of her art at the Madeleine Decre Gallery. She and her good friend Genevieve were sitting in a cafe when they spotted Picasso at a nearby table. Although he was with his then companion Dora Maar, that didn’t stop Picasso from approaching the young women with a bowl of cherries and asking his friend for an introduction. The friend obliged, and presented Genevieve as the “pretty one” and Francoise as the “intelligent one”.

Francoise had invited Picasso to her art exhibit and, to her amazement, he came. He then reciprocated by inviting her to his studio. After a courtship dance of studio visits, walks through Paris, afternoons at the museums, and drawing sessions, a May-December romance started to develop between the 61 year old artistic giant and the independent 21 year old free spirit. But Francoise did not jump impulsively into a relationship with Picasso. She likely had some trepidations. So Picasso had to chase her – a predatory role-play he no doubt enjoyed.

Another photo of Picasso and Francoise. Although he is positioned in the background, ostensibly like a subordinate, he seems to be eyeballing her, like the control freak he was:

Picasso and Gilot’s circle of friends included some very prominent figures of the 20th century cultural scene. Among them were George Braque, Marc Chagall, Jean Cocteau, and Picasso’s longtime good friends, Gertrude Stein and Henri Matisse, both of whom were very fond of Francoise.

Picasso and Francoise in Antibes:

They were happy for a time, their greatest source of joy undoubtedly their two boisterous children. They both drew inspiration from the kids and created art which featured the children’s spirits, curiosity, and playfulness around the home.

A charming Picasso family portrait:

But the good times wouldn’t last. Francoise became increasingly frustrated with Picasso’s domineering ways, oppressive temperament, and infidelity. He was jealous of her friendships, as they represented time and attention taken away from him. Once, in an angry rage, he burned a cigarette out in Francoise’s face.

The breakup was inevitable, and ugly. Francoise left with the two children. Upon hearing that their home had been ransacked by Picasso, Francoise returned to discover that Picasso had indeed emptied the place and taken many of her belongings; her book collection, drawings he had given her, letters and correspondence from Matisse. But the final vindictive blow came when Picasso used his considerable influence to have Francoise dropped from her gallery.

So by the still young age of 31, Francoise Gilot had already endured more than her share of totalitarian forces, from every which way; her personal relationships and a wartorn Europe. All trying to keep her down, manipulate her, and break her will. But they failed. Throughout it all, Francoise evolved as an artist, fed her passion, raised her children, and kept her sanity! Amid war, controlling men, and a tumultuous European 20th century.

A 1956 trip to Tunisia inspired this painting by Gilot, Entering the Souk. It depicts a busy marketplace:

Figure drawing by Francoise, The Pink Veil:

You guys didn’t think Monet had the exclusive rights to paint waterlilies, did you? Here they are a la Gilot:

I am so pleased that unlike many of Picasso’s female companions (or most of the other muses I discuss here) Francoise Gilot did not live a “post-Picasso” life of misery and loneliness, or meet with a tragic demise. What a relief! She continued to evolve as an artist, worked tirelessly, exploring new themes, and mastering diverse media. In 1970, Francoise met and married Dr. Jonas Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine. The marriage was solid, extremely happy, and lasted 25 years until his death from congestive heart failure.

Francoise Gilot is alive and well, living in New York, still working, exhibiting, lecturing, writing, and as vital as ever. Her legacy is breathtaking; painter, illustrator, lithographer, author, and, perhaps most challenging, mother. Any woman who could survive and withstand both the Nazis and Pablo Picasso is officially my hero.

The website which served as an invaluable resource for me in composing this post was the Francoise Gilot Archives. There you can find detailed biographical information on Francoise and incredible images of her life and art. It’s an overall excellent site, and I highly recommend it. The extraordinary life of an extraordinary woman.

Also, YouTube has an hour long interview with Francoise on the Charlie Rose Show. Unfortunately the sound quality is terrible. I watched it, but it was disappointing for that reason. If you’re willing to give it a shot click YouTube-FrancoiseGilot

27 thoughts on “Francoise Gilot

  1. Sheramy says:

    Interesting post, interesting woman!

    Merchant Ivory made a movie back in the 90s about Gilot called “Surviving Picasso,” with Sir Anthony Hopkins as Picasso. I’ve not seen it, although I keep thinking I should. I do remember that the Picasso heirs were upset when the movie was being made and forbade the showing of any Picasso works in the film, which Merchant & Ivory then had to work around in the script.

  2. Josefin says:

    *** Claudia ***
    This information about Picasso was great and even the pictures
    you have added. I have watched the video about Francoise and this
    was interesting too . I have never found it myself .
    One of the female artist’s destiny, to be in the ”shadow” of the male artists .
    You do a great ”job” writing about the different art info and even you do add
    very interesting pictures to your writing!
    Thank you Claudia !!!
    Best // Josefin

  3. artmodel says:

    Sheramy,

    Yes, I know about that film but I haven’t seen it either. I’ve heard from people who have seen it that it’s pretty good. I’ve got to check it out, especially now after blogging about Francoise. I didn’t know it was a Merchant Ivory film. And I’d like to see Anthony Hopkins play Picasso!

    Thanks for commenting.

    Claudia

  4. artmodel says:

    Josefin,

    Thanks so much! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And I’m particularly glad about what you took from it: that female muses who are artists themselves, are often unfairly reduced to the role of “companion” to the male artist, and nothing more. Their own accomplishments are negelcted. And to do that is especially unjust in the case of Francoise Gilot. Her life story is rich, complex, and inspiring.

    I appreciate your compliments on my blogging. Such nice words, thank you!

    Claudia

  5. forestrat says:

    This was a great post as usual. As a model yourself, you are able to bring light to an often overlooked area of the art making process.

    Having said that, I hope you won’t think I’m trivialising things too much to say that speaking of Picasso put me in mind of a Simpsons episode. Marge was giving Homer a lesson in art history. She said Picasso started out realistic then moved on to cubism. By the end of his life he was just painting crank letters to the editor – they call it his “angry jerk” period.

    Sorry about that,

    MDW

  6. artmodel says:

    Forestrat,

    I haven’t seen that Simpsons episode, but that is so funny!! I love it! Such a hilarious show. Thanks for sharing that.

    I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I certainly enjoyed writing it and learning about Francoise.

    Claudia

  7. Olga Pina says:

    I have always loved and admired Francoise Gilot. First of all, she was the gutsy woman who dared and cared enough about herself and her children to dump Picasso.

    Also, I happen to own an art gallery (www.eltallergallery.com) , so I understand the compelling lives of women artists. They always find support and assistance in letting them know the inside track to commercially survive the art world.

    Picasso’s life was brought to a climax in his last portrait he did of himself: a gaunt, old, senile man, personifying fear at the prospect of his own death. You can go to the University of Texas’ Picasso Project and study the vast amount of documented work. The piece I talk about is there.

    Viva Francoise!

    Olga
    Austin, Texas

  8. artmodel says:

    Olga,

    Thank you so much for you wonderful comments and information! I really enjoyed reading them, and I appreciate the resources.

    I couldn’t agree with you more about Francoise Gilot. She is fascinating in every way, and I was very absorbed in the writing and creation of this post. Her biography is solid, inspiring, and rich. And what an artist!

    Glad you stopped by to read the post. Thanks Olga.
    And a big amen to your “Viva Francoise!”

    Claudia

  9. claudia, thank you so much for your insight into an amazing woman and artist! I found you googling gilot because I am so very lucky to have been able to just buy one of her lithographs from a gallery in new Orleans! I was on the brink of tears as we made the purchase! Her book Matisse & Picasso is one of my favorite books. I teach art , paint, and have a book just published, The Artist Within. It is all about empowering ourselves to create change! Perfect for 2009! Good luck onall ofnyour creations! Whitney ferre’

    • Tony says:

      Whitney,

      I agree, what a remarkable human bein – Quiet an amazing woman! – I was fortunate enough to come by an original self portrait of Francoise Gilot – It was being auction off with some other impressive art work – Some how it did not come up for auction until near the very end – I thought about asking them to put it up sooner – I decided to wait it out instead – I am glad I did – Most of the other art work, left with the early bidders – That left me and one other bidder – Needless to say, I came away with what I went there for – After doing more extensive research about her is when I realized how lucky I was, to have gotten the piece. It is nice to know others who feel the same way.

  10. artmodel says:

    Whitney,

    Wow, you are one lucky lady! A Gilot lithograph! I don’t blame you for being on the brink of tears, as that is a very special purchase indeed. You will treasure it I’m sure. Thank you for sharing that here on Museworthy.

    This post on Francoise is one of my personal favorites. She was, and still is, a truly fascinating woman. So much to admire about her. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend that you visit the website dedicated to her. The link appears at the end of my blog post. It’s a wonderful site.

    Your site is wonderful as well! I will definitely be visiting it again. Good luck to you too, Whitney. I hope you stop by Museworthy again. It was a delight reading your comment.

    Happy New Year :-)

    Claudia

  11. Olga Pina says:

    Hi,

    I understand that you don’t have to publish this, however, I have come across a Gilot lithograph where she is sitting in a rocking chair and Paloma on her lap! If you decide to invest in one of her lithographs, let me know. You must have an interest, I am sure.

    The piece is as it is being researched, rare. I have a price of $7,000.00 framed in an Italian frame and archival in its frame as well.

    Thank you and I did not know how else to offer this to you, except by this forum.

    Olga

  12. artmodel says:

    Olga,

    It’s fine that you posted this in the comment section, as it could be of interest to me as well as my readers. Just so you know, you can always email me directly about anything. Many people do who don’t want to post a public comment.

    That sounds like a very special piece. And you know, obviously, that I have great admiration for Francoise Gilot. Any way I can see it? Do you have the image?

    Contact me if you want, Olga. And thanks!

    Claudia

    • Olga O. Pina says:

      I sold the Gilot lithograph last April to someone out of state that saw that litho in my gallery. I sold it and she loved it.

      To see the face of someone who acquires a fine art piece from a master, is certainly why I love my job.

      I have had a terrible car accident that has left me with a bad back injury. My car was totaled, but the gallery site is closed, six months away from celebrating 30 years of being in the business of selling all the famous artists.

      My e-mail is also down, so this is the only way I can stay in touch with you.

      I love your site…I will try to send you a photo of the lithograph and let me know if I can be of help in finding a Gilot litho for you.

      Sincerely and thank you for letting me post in the way I have done.

      Olga
      http://www.eltallergallery.com

      • artmodel says:

        Olga,

        I’m so sorry to hear about your accident! That’s terrible. My thoughts are with you, but I am certain you will – and are – recovering well from your injury and that things will return to normal.

        I’m glad you posted a comment, and please feel free to communicate through Museworthy or email me when your email gets back up and running. You are a friend to this blog, and I am a friend to you :-)

        Take care of yourself, Olga. And thank you.

        Warmest regards,
        Claudia

  13. Dave Rudin says:

    Hi, Claudia.

    I don’t know if you were there yesterday, but Francoise Gilot gave a lecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art about Picasso, his work and her life with him. Great stuff, so I hope you were there.

    If you weren’t, you can read about it and see some of my photos at my blog posting about it (in the second half):

    http://figuresofgrace.blogspot.com/2010/06/i-dont-be-lieve-it.html

    I will try to follow the links you provided here to find out more about her own art work. She currently has a show of prints on display now at the BLT Gallery on the Bowery.

    • artmodel says:

      Dave, thanks sooo much! No I was not there unfortunately. Dammit. You are so lucky you were! I appreciate you posting this, and I am heading over to your blog right now to read your account. What a great event!

      Claudia

  14. Dave Rudin says:

    At Madame Gilot’s lecture at the Met, she (basically) said that her successor in Picasso’s life, Jacqueline, was perfect for him because she really had no life or career of her own. (I don’t remember the exact words, but I think you get the idea.)

    It is therefore interesting – and tragically so – that Francoise went on to lead a full life of her own without Picasso but Jacqueline ending up taking her own life. I attended a lecture not too long ago by Lucien Clergue, the French photographer who was a friend of Picasso and Jacqueline. His photographs of Jacqueline and their home after Picasso’s death are very depressing (as he said she was), and even more so after the French government pretty much removed all of his artwork in lieu of taxes.

    One could almost understand why she took her life, as Picasso must have had a very big personality and his absence was therefore felt very greatly. The key, I suppose, is that Francoise had a life of her own to live, and Jacqueline apparently had nothing to live for other than her husband. Tragic indeed.

  15. Olga O. Pina says:

    I have my gallery online now.

    It is certainly tragic that Jacqueline took her own life after Picasso. Noting that beside Picasso, there was nothing left in her life is not only tragic, but pathetic.

    Picasso ruled the roost and treated all his women dismally and ruthlessly. He expected their undivided attention and adulation. Their slavery to him is legendary. He was a hateful human being.

    Francoise Gilot is the only woman who stood up to him and his whims. She should be emulated and admired for her unbridled spirit.

    Thank you for your post about her and the responses that followed.

    Sincerely,

    Olga O. Pina
    http://www.eltallergallery.com
    Austin, Texas

  16. Mary says:

    I read recently where there was an exhibition of Gilot’s works at the Mann Gallery in New Orleans this past April/May (2010). She also attended the exhibition and spoke, I believe, while there.

    How would I get upcoming news on any Gilot exhibitions whether at a gallery or a museum? I am unable to find anything – except from the past – when I do an online search.

    Thanks very much in advance.

  17. Olga O. Pina says:

    EUREKA!

    I found a beautiful drawing signed by Picasso of Francoise Gilot and dated 1946.

    If anyone is interested in Picasso’s drawings/originals of Francoise, visit the University of Texas site, Picasso online.

    The art is divided by the year when they were created and even has notes on the art and quite an interesting site that I found when I researched Picasso’s art of her and also Jacqueline…

    Olga O. Pina
    olgaoolivia@yahoo.com

  18. Olga O. Pina says:

    Actually, it is called On Line Picasso Project and has 18,000 plus examples of his work.

    The University of Texas has nothing to do with this site. I don’t know why I thought that.

    If you visit this site, enjoy it as much as I did!

    Olga

    • artmodel says:

      Olga,

      Great to hear from you! That’s the same Picasso site I have listed in my sidebar under “Artists”. Yes, it’s VERY comprehensive. One can spend a lot of time on there!

      Thanks for your comments. Hope you’re doing well.

      Claudia

      • Cathe says:

        I have just bought the most expensive painting in which I have ever invested.
        Though it is a beautiful oil, I think I was more in love with the painter. Francoise Gilot is an absolutely amazing woman and artist. I hope to meet her. Do you happen to know anything about her friend, Genevieve, who sometimes modeled for her? I bought a painting of her that was done in 1957. I do not know what became of her. She was not Genevieve Laporte. Please help me. I truly enjoyed your sensitivity toward this unique personality. What a star.

        • artmodel says:

          Cathe,

          Wow, did you purchase a Gilot painting? That’s incredible. I share your admiration for Francoise Gilot. Truly one of the most fascinating women. This blog post still receives many visits, three years after it was first published. Many people are intrigued by her.

          I don’t know what happened to her friend Genevieve, unfortunately. I’ll see what I can find out.

          Thank you for sharing your comments and feelings here.

          Claudia

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