Francoise Gilot, now 93 years old, was Picasso’s lover and artistic muse for almost 10 years despite being 40 years his junior.
Together they had two children, Paloma and Claude, but the relationship ended sourly when eleven years after their separation, Gilot wrote Life with Picasso, a book that sold over one million copies in dozens of languages, despite an unsuccessful legal challenge from Picasso attempting to stop its publication.
‘Women are machines for suffering,’ Picasso told his mistress Gilot in 1943, as they embarked on their 9-year affair. ‘For me, there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats,’ the 61-year old artist warned the 21-year old student.
Just 21 when they met, Gilot, a young aspiring artist, handled Picasso’s cruelties and perversities with amazing deftness and was the only woman to voluntarily leave him with her dignity intact. In September, 1953, Francoise Gilot walked out on her relationship with Pablo Picasso, taking their two small children with her. Journalists camped on her Paris doorstep and an enraged Picasso vowed to eradicate her from the art world they had shared.
‘No woman leaves a man like me,’ the world-renowned painter taunted the 31-year old woman. ‘You’re headed straight for the desert.’
Rather than entering a desert, Gilot took up her pen and wrote Life with Picasso.
It became a best-seller. The New York Times called it a vivid portrait of a monstrously difficult man and a brilliant depiction of a great artist at work.
Gilot, born in Paris in 1921, was the only child of wealthy and highly accomplished parents. Her father was an agronomist and a businessman; her mother, a painter.
Her tyrannical father, who fervently wanted a son, insisted that she be dressed like a boy and excel in athletics. He pursued her intellectual development with the same vigor, having her tutored at home until she was 9 and quizzing her unrelentingly on every subject, including botany, philosophy, literature and art.
Fear was anathema to him. She feared the water, so he made her learn to swim, then forced her to swim faster and farther week by week. Every challenge met brought on a new one to conquer. Her anger at her father, she says, gradually replaced her fears.
It is this background, Gilot says, that led her into a relationship with Picasso, a man as difficult as her father, and as great a challenge as any 21-year old art student could envision.
Life with Picasso was a roller-coaster ride: his moods and temper were unpredictable and his possessiveness sometimes cruel. He once ‘branded’ Gilot’s face with cigarette burns.
It was also an incredible milieu for a young painter such as Gilot, who had learned from her father to hold her own in almost any circumstance.
Francoise Gilot never recalls a time when she wasn’t a feminist because she was raised among strong self-sufficient women. Both her grandmothers who were feminists owned businesses and she always expected to have a career and take her place as an equal among men.
She has insisted on remaining financially autonomous, married or not, all her life. Her own feminism is defined by independence. ‘I don’t want to exclude men. Feminism is an emergence, not a fight.’
Although Picasso had influenced Gilot’s work as a cubist painter, she developed her own style. She avoided the sharp edges and angular forms that Picasso used and instead used organic figures.
Francoise Gilot is in her 90’s now. She continues to paint every day.
In 1969, Gilot was introduced to Dr. Jonas Salk, the polio vaccine pioneer. Their shared appreciation of architecture led to a brief courtship and they were married in Paris in 1970. They remained married until Salk’s death in 1995. During her marriage to Dr. Salk, she continued to paint in New York, California and Paris.
As of April, 2002, she lives in New York City and Paris, works on behalf of the Salk Institute in California and continues to exhibit her work internationally.
Francoise Gilot is included in the permanent collections of the Musee Picasso in Antibes, the Museum of Modern Art in New York the Women’s Museum in Washington D.C. and Musee de Tel Aviv in Israel.
In 1990. She received the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, the French government’s highest honor for her work as a painter, a writer and feminist.