Gilot, Françoise (1922—)

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Gilot, Françoise (1922—)

French painter, author, and paramour of Pablo Picasso. Born in France in 1922; daughter of Emile Gilot (founder of Parfums Gilot); attended Catholic boarding school; received a licence in literature (equivalent of an A.B. in an American or English university) and studied law at the Sorbonne; lived with Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) for a decade beginning in 1943; married Luc Simon (a painter), in July 1953 (divorced); married Dr. Jonas Salk (1914–1995, a physician who developed the first vaccine against polio), in 1970 (died 1995); children: (first marriage) daughter, Aurélia Simon (with Picasso) Claude Picasso (b. May 15, 1947); Paloma Picasso (b. April 19, 1949).

"The creative fire is hard to bear," said Françoise Gilot, one of Pablo Picasso's many paramours and the mother of two of his children. "It is not small stuff. It is a very serious thing." Gilot, who lived with the famous artist for a decade and had two of his children, walked away from the relationship seemingly unscathed, which cannot be said of all the women in Picasso's life. "He did not destroy me because I was of the stuff that cannot be destroyed," she said in a 1996 interview for Mirabella. "I do not need another consciousness to define my own. Picasso used to say that I have my own window on infinity. I did not need him or anything he did to have my own being complete." Indeed, Gilot went on to become a respected painter in her own right, as well as a poet and author.

Gilot was born in 1922 and grew up in a well-to-do Parisian home dominated by her father, a strong-willed man who was disappointed that his only child was a girl. In response, she was dressed in boyish fashion, with her hair cut unfashionably short, and was encouraged to excel in athletics. Her father took her hunting and fishing, and grew angry if she expressed any fear. Later, Gilot began to conquer her fears, not for her father, but for herself. "And when I met Pablo, I knew that he was something larger than life, something to match myself against," she writes in her memoir Life with Picasso. "The prospect sometimes seemed overpowering, but fear itself can be a delicious sensation."

Their meeting took place in May 1943, during the German occupation of France. Gilot was having dinner with friends at a small restaurant frequented by writers and artists on the Left Bank, where Picasso was also dining with his own coterie, including his companion since 1936, Dora Marr (Picasso, 40 years Gilot's senior, had already been involved with numerous women and was then married to ballerina Olga Khoklova , from whom he separated in 1935 but because of Spanish law was unable to divorce. He had a son Paulo with Olga, and a daughter Maya with Marie-Thérèse Walter , his mistress before Dora Marr.) Gilot, then 21, had just lost her long-time painting teacher (a Hungarian by the name of Endre Rozsda) and was grappling over how to tell her father that she intended to give up university studies to pursue art full-time, a decision that she knew would cause a split between them. She had also been rejected by a boyfriend, one with whom she was quite serious. Noticing Gilot across the room, Picasso openly flirted with her, then came over to her table, bringing with him a bowl of cherries and offering them around. His small talk included an invitation to his studio, which Gilot responded to the following week. Over the course of the next few months, she continued to call on Picasso, frequently bringing her work for him to critique. "When I did go back to see him, it wasn't long before he began to make very clear another side of the nature of his interest in me," she wrote. During this time, Gilot also made up her mind to confront her father, who was so enraged over her desire to paint that he attempted to have her declared insane. She left his house and went to live with her grandmother, sacrificing not only the relationship, but the allowance her father had provided for her. She did not see her father again until 1951, at her grandmother's funeral.

Gilot's relationship with Picasso continued to intensify, but, although they became lovers, she refused his persistent invitations to move in with him until the spring of 1946. She was wary of Picasso's notorious mood swings and his ongoing involvement with Dora Marr, but eventually the challenge of the relationship overcame her doubts. She would later discover that Picasso's ties to the past did not end with Marr. He regularly visited Marie-Thérèse and her daughter Maya, while Olga's son Paulo spent summers with him. Olga, devastated by her separation from Picasso and in fragile mental health, followed the artist everywhere; she would ultimately begin to harass Gilot as well.

During their decade together, Picasso and Gilot divided their time between his Paris studio at Rue des Grands-Augustins and Vallauris in the south of France, where Picasso made his pottery and where he eventually purchased the villa La Galloise. Gilot gave her life over to Picasso and his work, expecting nothing for herself, she maintains, "beyond what he had given the world by means of his art." In 1947, having been persuaded by Picasso that a "child would complete her as a woman," Gilot gave birth to their son, Claude Picasso. A daughter, Paloma Picasso , followed in 1949. Picasso was always in a happy mood when she was pregnant, writes Gilot, and her decision to have a second child was based partly on her desire to keep him on an even keel.

For the first three years with Picasso, Gilot had stopped painting, convinced that her work would "reflect his presence." Picasso, however, as he did with each new lover, produced a series of portraits of Gilot, including 11 lithographs executed during the first month she lived with him, and a number of paintings, including La Femme-Fleur, a likeness of Gilot that resembles a flower. Among his later portraits of Gilot is the lithograph Françoise–grave or sad? and a sculptured portrait Tête de Femme, as well as numerous portraits of the children, alone and with their mother. During her hiatus from painting, Gilot spent her free time drawing. In 1948, she picked up her brushes again, first working in gouache, then in oils. Claude, restless and energetic, was a constant source of interruption to his mother, but Paloma was an ideal baby who basically slept and ate. "She'll be a perfect woman," Picasso used to say. "Passive and submissive. That's the way all girls should be. They ought to stay asleep just like that until they're twenty-one."

Picasso was generous as Gilot's mentor, and her early work does reflect his influence. He was outwardly pleased at any success she attained during their time together. In 1949, when D.H. Kahnweiler, Picasso's off-and-on dealer, offered her an exclusive contract on her yearly production of paintings, Picasso encouraged her to accept. Gilot's work sold well, and within two years she had doubled her income. In the fall of 1951, she had a successful showing at la Hune Gallery in Paris, and the following spring she had a full-scale exhibition at Kahnweiler's.

Following the birth of Paloma, Gilot was ill for a time and grew quite thin. Picasso began to criticize her appearance. He also started to chafe under the confines of domesticity and withdrew, while Gilot began to want more from the relationship. Picasso had directed her metamorphosis, writes Gilot, then wanted no part of the woman she had become. Their affair, however, took several years to play itself out, despite numerous bitter encounters. In 1953, Gilot left permanently, moving to Paris with the children and taking up with Luc Simon, an artist she had known in her teens. But Gilot continued to see Picasso on occasion, sometimes accompanying the children on visits. He was alternately welcoming and dismissive.

A year after they had parted, Picasso invited Gilot to participate in the opening of the first bullfight in Vallauris, an event at which he was to be honored. "You deserve to leave with the honors of war," he told her. "For me the bull is the proudest symbol of all, and your symbol is the horse. I want our two symbols to face each other in that ritual way." Gilot agreed. Her performance at the event, which involved circling the stadium several times on horseback, was triumphant, indeed, and served as the ending of the 1996 Merchant-Ivory film, Surviving Picasso, based on Gilot's memoir and starring Anthony Hopkins and Natascha McElhone . In reality, the couple's last encounter, far less dramatic, was in 1955, when Gilot told him that she was marrying Simon. "I hope it's a fiasco, you ungrateful creature," he said. Gilot never saw Picasso again, but he continued to exercise his disdain, seeing to it that she was excluded from several salons and that her contract with Kahnweiler was terminated.

Gilot wed Simon and had a second daughter Aurélia, although the marriage did not endure. In 1970, she married Dr. Jonas Salk, the renowned American physician who developed the first vaccine against poliomyelitis. Meanwhile, she pursued her art in earnest, producing paintings, drawings, and prints that are included in the permanent collections of museums throughout the United States and Europe. A recurring theme in her work, which encompasses 1,300 oils and more than 300 works on paper, is mythology, stories of the ancient gods and goddesses. "During my adolescence, I started to envision these myths as a kind of metaphor for life," she writes in the artist's preface to Ariana Huffington 's The Gods of Greece (illustrated with some 60 of Gilot's paintings and drawings done over a 50-year period), "and I took particular solace in the inventiveness these tales elicit, reinforcing human skill… in defeating negative occurrences, sometimes even those of fate itself." Gilot exhibited her mythological paintings in the United States in 1966, and again in 1993–94, in a traveling exhibit titled Past-Present: Mythology of the Gods (1940–1993). In 1990, she was awarded the Legion denier in her native France, and in January 1994 she received the Jean Cocteau International Style Award, presented annually by the Severin Wunderman Museum in Irvine, California, to a person whose "personal style and participation in the arts reflect the spirit of Jean Cocteau."

Gilot has also authored nine books, including Interface: The Painter and the Mask, Françoise Gilot: An Artist's Journey and Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art. Her memoir, Life With Picasso, published in 1964, was said to have angered the artist, who by then had obtained his divorce from Olga Khoklova and was married to Jacqueline Roque .


Champa, Paula. "Past-Present: The Mythological Paintings of Françoise Gilot," in American Artist. Vol. 57, no. 617. December 1993, pp. 38–48.

Gilot, Françoise, with Carlton Lake. Life with Picasso. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1986.

Nicksin, Carole. "Sassing Picasso," in Mirabella. Vol 7. September–October 1996, p. 40.

related media:

Surviving Picasso (film), based on Gilot's memoir, starred Anthony Hopkins and Natascha McElhone, produced by Merchant-Ivory, 1996.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Gilot, Françoise (1922—)

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