scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Françoise Gilot, artist in the shadow of Picasso, is dead at 101

Ms. Gilot, with her work on display at the Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art in 2000.KAMERMAN, David GLOBE STAFF

NEW YORK — Françoise Gilot, an accomplished painter whose art was eclipsed by her long and stormy romantic relationship with a much older Pablo Picasso, and who alone among his many mistresses walked out on him, died Tuesday at a hospital in Manhattan. She was 101.

The death was confirmed by her daughter Aurelia Engel, who said Ms. Gilot had recently been dealing with heart and lung ailments.

“You imagine people will be interested in you?” Ms. Gilot quoted a surprised Picasso as saying after she told him that she was leaving him. “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.”


But unlike his two wives and other mistresses, Ms. Gilot rebuilt her life after she ended the relationship, in 1953, almost a decade after it had begun despite an age difference of 40 years. She continued painting and exhibiting her work and wrote books.

In 1970, she married Jonas Salk, the American medical researcher who developed the first safe polio vaccine. Still, it was for her romance with Picasso that the public knew her best, particularly after her memoir, “Life with Picasso,” written with Carlton Lake, was published in 1964. It became an international bestseller and so infuriated Picasso that he broke off all contact with Ms. Gilot and their two children, Claude and Paloma Picasso.

Ms. Gilot’s frank and often sympathetic account of their relationship — she dedicated the book “to Pablo” — provided much of the material for the 1996 Merchant-Ivory movie, “Surviving Picasso,” in which she was played by Natascha McElhone, with Anthony Hopkins as Picasso.

Spanish painter Pablo Picasso with Ms. Gilot, and their children Claude (standing) and Paloma in Vallauris, France, in 1950.Associated Press/ASSOCIATED PRESS

If Ms. Gilot’s book sold well, so has her art. With her work in more than a dozen museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, her paintings fetched increasingly higher prices well into her later years.


As recently as June 2021, her painting “Paloma à la Guitare” (1965), a blue-toned portrait of her daughter, sold for $1.3 million in an online auction by Sotheby’s.

Lisa Stevenson, the head of curated sales for Sotheby’s in London, told ARTnews after the 2021 auction, “It isn’t commonly known that Gilot’s commitment to art was present long before her relationship with Pablo Picasso, and she was sadly often left in his shadow.”

Ms. Gilot herself preferred to leave judgments about her art and life to others. As she told The New York Times in a profile of her published in January 2022, “I am not going to make a big deal of being more than what I am — or less.”

Marie Françoise Gilot was born into a prosperous family on Nov. 26, 1921, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris, the only child of Emile Gilot, an agronomist and chemical manufacturer, and Madeleine Renoult-Gilot.

Marie Françoise was drawn to art from an early age, tutored by her mother, who had studied art history, ceramics and watercolor painting. Her father, however, had other ideas. Envisioning a career in science or the law for his daughter, he persuaded her to enroll at the University of Paris, where she received her bachelor’s degree in 1938 at age 17.


She went on to study at the Sorbonne and the British Institute in Paris and received a degree in English literature from Cambridge University. As war crept closer to France in 1939, her father sent her to the city of Rennes, northwest of Paris, to enroll in law school. All the while, she continued working on her paintings.

Then came the German occupation of Paris, in June 1940, and she joined other students in an anti-German protest march at the Arc de Triomphe. In a clash with the French and German authorities, Ms. Gilot was arrested, briefly detained and put under watch. “From day one, we were not the kind of people who would become collaborators,” she said of her family.

She began private art lessons with a fugitive Hungarian Jewish painter, Endre Rozsda, and attended classes at the Académie Julian, which numbered Matisse, Bonnard, Léger, and Duchamp among its alumni.

As Ms. Gilot described it in “Life With Picasso,” her first encounter with Picasso, in May 1943, was accidental. She was dining with her closest friend, Geneviève Aliquot, and an actor, Alain Cuny, in Le Catalan, a small restaurant near Picasso’s Left Bank studio. Picasso was at another table accompanied by his mistress at the time, the Surrealist photographer Dora Maar.

Picasso asked Cuny to introduce him to the two young women. Learning that both were painters, he invited them to visit his studio. They did so together the following day and several more times before Geneviève returned to her home in southern France. Ms. Gilot continued to visit Picasso.


In the winter of 1944 her relationship with Picasso blossomed. She was 22; he was 62. She later recalled lying naked by his side. “He was very gentle,” she wrote, “and that is the impression that remains with me to this day — his extraordinary gentleness.”

In May 1946, Ms. Gilot agreed to move in with Picasso, and a volatile chapter in her life began. By all accounts, while Picasso’s painting and ceramics reflected a new happiness — he portrayed Ms. Gilot as a nymph to his centaur — he apparently now felt that he had conquered her and began seeing other women.

She gave birth to Claude in May 1947 and Paloma in April 1949. She also continued painting, adopting a colorful abstract style associated with the postwar School of Paris rather than imitating Picasso. In April 1952, she had a well-received exhibition in Paris. But by then Picasso had been traveling to southern France without her and made little secret of his new affairs.

Finally, on Sept. 20, 1953, unwell and unhappy, she told Picasso that she was going to leave him.

“No woman leaves a man like me,” he replied, according to her account in “Life With Picasso.” She wrote: “I told him maybe that was the way it looked to him, but I was one woman who would, and was about to.”


Ms. Gilot remained in contact with Picasso, even informing him of her decision in 1955 to marry a childhood friend, Luc Simon, a French artist. Her daughter Aurelia was a product of that marriage before it ended in divorce in 1962.

Ms. Gilot’s final rupture with the artist was over “Life With Picasso.” His friends attacked her over the memoir, and so did the French Communist Party. Picasso himself made three vain attempts to prevent the book from being published in France. Then he refused to see Claude and Paloma again, apparently keeping his word until his death in 1973.

By then Ms. Gilot had married Salk, shuttling between a home in the La Jolla section of San Diego and her studio in southern France. In 1975, she published a new book, “Interface: The Painter and the Mask,” a memoir of her life as an artist. The next year she became chairwoman of the fine arts department at the University of Southern California, a post she held until 1983.

In addition to Engel, she leaves Claude Picasso, the director of Picasso Administration, which manages the artist’s estate; Paloma Picasso, the fashion and jewelry designer best known for her perfumes; and four grandchildren.

After Salk’s death in 1995, Ms. Gilot lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in an apartment that doubled as a studio — “an airy refuge with barrel-vaulted ceilings, towering bookcases and an outsize window that bathes her canvases in a cool north light,” Ruth La Ferla wrote in the 2022 Times profile.

Asked by La Ferla if she had ever felt competitive with Picasso or his friends — among them Chagall, Braque, Matisse, and Giacometti — Ms. Gilot replied: “That never entered my mind. I started painting, after all, at 3 years old. As a child, you aren’t thinking in terms of me, me, me. You are not capable of that.”

But she acknowledged that those 20th century masters had an inevitable impact. They “helped me grow,” she said, and by their very attention instilled in her a measure of self-confidence.

“I realized,” she said, “if they are so great, then I am not so small.”