Here’s one way to spend your life: Meet Pablo Picasso in occupied Paris during World War II, spend 10 years and have two children with him while you mingle with Matisse and Miro, leave him, become a well-regarded artist on your own, write a best-seller, marry the discoverer of the polio vaccine, and by the time you hit 90, have four of your works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and split your time between New York City and Paris.
That’s the story of François Gilot, who is still alive and active at age 93. You can read her story in the fascinating book Life With Picasso if you stumble upon it in a second-hand bookstore as I did last month. (The version I have is the 1990 reprint, shown above, by Virago Press.) Life With Picasso was quite a sensation when it came out in 1964; Picasso was furious and it sold more than a million copies.
The story starts out with a bang when Gilot meets Picasso while at dinner with her beautiful friend Geneviève and the actor Alain Cuny. (Gilot seemed be doing pretty well for herself in the social world already; Cuny was a film star and at the time was playing Macbeth at the Theater Montparnasse. This was three decades before he played Sylvia Kristel’s weird old svengali in Emmanuel.) Recognizing Cuny, Picasso comes to their table and after some small talk, asks Cuny what the girls do.
‘We’re painters,’ Geneviève answered.Picasso burst out laughing. ‘That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day. Girls who look like that can’t be painters.’
Still, Picasso invites the girls to visit his studios to see his paintings, then returns to his table (and his soon-to-be-displaced mistress, Dora Maar). Gilot and Geneviève visit Picasso’s studio the next week, and before long Gilot is visiting on her own. Picasso’s attempts to seduce her, and his disgust when she refuses to play coy, are some of the funniest passages in the book.
Eventually Gilot becomes Picasso’s mistress, muse, fellow painter, philosophical sparring partner, and mother of two children with him. (One, Paloma Picasso, is the now-famous jewelry designer. The other, Claude, is a photographer and manages the Picasso estate.)
At the time of their meeting, Picasso was 61 and Gilot was 21. To put that in terms of today, that’s like someone born in 1994 meeting someone born in 1954: Dakota Fanning dating Al Sharpton, or Justin Bieber moving in with Angela Merkel.
Gilot kept painting throughout their life together, producing works like The Painters (above, from 1953). It shows Gilot and Picasso (second from right) with the artists Pierre Gastaud and Edouard Pignon. Her depiction of Picasso’s piercing eyes and bull-strong torso is pretty marvelous.
Life with Picasso is full of fascinating tidbits about Picasso, from his theories of art (surprisingly accessible!) to his dealings with buyers and his day-to-day life. Here’s Gilot on their morning routine:
One of the hardest of the jobs that fell to me was getting Pablo out of bed mornings. He always woke up submerged in pessimism and there was a definite ritual to be followed, a litany that had to be repeated every day, sometimes more insistently than others.…Inès, the chambermaid, went in first, carrying Pablo’s breakfast tray — cafe au lait and two pieces of salt-free dried toast — followed by Sabartes with the papers and the mail. I brought up the rear. Pablo would always start to grumble, first about the way his breakfast was laid out on the tray. Inès would rearrange it — differently every day — to suit him, curtsy, and leave. Then Sabartes would set down the papers and hand him the mail……Then [Picasso] would groan and begin his lamenations. One day typical of many they went this way: ‘You have no idea how unhappy I am. Nobody could be more unhappy. In the first place I’m a sick man. My God, if you only knew what sicknesses I have.’
Despite how gloomy that sounds, Gilot is actually quite upbeat and warm about Picasso throughout the book. She is not bitter. As she says near the end of the book:
At the time I went to live with Pablo, I had felt that he was a person to whom I could, and should, devote myself entirely, but from whom I should expect to receive nothing beyond what he had given the world by means of his art. I consented to make my life with him on those terms.
She seems to have kept those terms with herself. When things soured after 10 years, François Gilot left Picasso, taking the kids with her, and was quickly blackballed by Picasso’s entourage. 10 years later she published Life With Picasso. Five years after that she met Jonas Salk, the polio vaccine creator, and they were happily married for 25 years until his death in 1995.
François Gilot is still keeping busy. Vogue had a wonderful feature on her, Life After Picasso, a few years back. She was interviewed last October by the Wall Street Journal for a piece about a Matisse exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
Gilot was back in the news recently when Christie’s announced it would auction Picasso’s 1955 work The Women of Algiers (above) for a hoped-for $140 million. Gilot is said to have been a major inspiration for the painting.
Life With Picasso is warmly recommended here at the Who2 book desk. For still more about Gilot, watch this Charlie Rose interview from 2012.
Or visit Francois Gilot’s own website: FrancoisGilot.com.