Françoise Gilot: a passionate, courageous life

In memory of Françoise Gilot, who has died at the age of 101, we revisit a feature published in 2021 when an exhibition was held in Hong Kong to mark her 100th birthday

Françoise Gilot holding a red gladiola in Vallauris, France. Photo: Gjon Mili / The LIFE Picture Collection / Shutterstock

Françoise Gilot holding a red gladiola in Vallauris, France, 1949. Photo: Gjon Mili / The LIFE Picture Collection / Shutterstock

The French artist Françoise Gilot — who turns 100 on 26 November — remembers a childhood conversation that splendidly anticipated her life and career ahead. It happened when Gilot was just five and on a trip with her parents to the Swiss Alps.

Struck by the gorgeous mix of light green meadows and dark green forest, she asked her father if he could see the same thing — ‘In other words, was [her view] objective or was it subjective?’

Monsieur Gilot called such a question ‘stupid’ as ‘the retina is the same for everybody’. To which his daughter retorted: ‘Yes, Father, the retina is the same for everybody, but the imagination is not.’

This tale of the young Françoise will be entirely credible to anyone that knows the adult Françoise: an independent thinker, who refuses to pander to male authority and thinks that art springs chiefly from what is inside  artists rather than what's in front of them.

Gilot made her name as one of the leading lights of the School of Paris, which flourished in the French capital after the Second World War. She has spent most of her career in the US, though, where she moved in 1970. (She currently occupies an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which doubles as a studio in which she still paints almost every day.)

To mark her 100th birthday, Christie’s is staging a solo exhibition at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, featuring more than 30 works from across Gilot’s career (11 of them offered for private sale).

Françoise Gilot in Paris, 1943. Photograph by Endre Rozsda

Françoise Gilot in Paris, 1943. Photo: Endre Rozsda

The artist once said that there are two sorts of people: ‘Those who have courage in life and those who don’t. If you do have it, there are bumps along the way, but life is so much more interesting.’

Even a cursory look at Gilot’s biography demonstrates that she has always had courage. An only child, she was born into an haute bourgeois  family in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1921. Her father was an agronomist, her mother a ceramicist. She rode horses each morning and was tutored at home until the age of 10. By the time she went to school, she was, in her own words, ‘ahead of all the other children my age... I refused to submit to rules if I did not see they had any meaning.’

After undergraduate studies in philosophy at the Sorbonne, in 1939 she enrolled at law school. When war broke out and Paris fell to the Germans, however, she chose to pursue a career in painting instead, which until then had just been a pastime.

Her father was so enraged by this decision that he beat her and banished her from the family home. Undeterred, Françoise entered the atelier of the Franco-Hungarian Surrealist, Endre Rozsda.

Françoise Gilot (1921-2023), Nu Abstrait, 1945. Oil on canvas

Françoise Gilot (1921-2023), Nu Abstrait, 1945. Oil on canvas. 50 x 73 cm (19¾ x 28¾ in)

From November 1940 onwards, she had to report to the local police station each day, after taking part in a protest at the Nazi occupation. Her name was now on a list kept by the Abwehr  of young French rebels, and she was placed under indefinite ‘city arrest’ (meaning she was unable to leave Paris). Much of Gilot’s early work expresses a lament at her homeland’s fate.

She had her first exhibition in 1943, the same year that she was introduced to Pablo Picasso at a restaurant. She was 21, he 61, but the age gap didn’t prevent the pair from going on to have a 10-year romantic relationship. The details of that relationship are well known — in no small part thanks to a best-selling memoir penned by Gilot herself, Life with Picasso, in 1964 — and don’t need retelling.

Suffice to say that she served as his model, muse, housekeeper, mother of two children (Claude and Paloma), and much else besides. Gilot grew frustrated by this arrangement, however, and went on to become the only of Picasso’s lovers or wives ever to leave him. (‘With Picasso, I had to put my own personality in my pocket,’ she has said.)

Françoise Gilot (1921-2023), Etude bleue, 1953. Oil on panel

Françoise Gilot (1921-2023), Etude bleue, 1953. Oil on panel. 147 x 115.2 cm (57⅞ x 45⅜ in)

The Spaniard undoubtedly had an impact on Gilot’s work in the years they were together: for example, in her new willingness to distort the human figure. She tended to do so in more lyrical, less violent fashion than he did, however. (Lyricism is a quality that has always characterised Françoise’s work.)

In truth, it wasn’t Picasso but his long-time friend, Matisse, who exerted the most enduring influence on Gilot’s art, most obviously in her use of highly saturated colour. In 1946, Picasso had actually taken Françoise to visit the great — but by now increasingly infirm — Frenchman at his house in Vence in south-east France. Matisse took an immediate liking to her and commented how much he loved her ‘circumflex eyebrows’ – that is, their triangular form.

Françoise Gilot (1921-2023), Les Peintres, 1952. Oil on panel

Françoise Gilot (1921-2023), Les Peintres, 1952. Oil on panel. 163.5 x 131 cm (64⅜ x 51⅝ in)

Despite such privileged access early in her career to two Modernist giants, it’s worth stressing that Gilot has always trodden her own artistic path. After the war, she loosely aligned herself with the likes of Sonia Delaunay and Nicolas de Staël in a group of abstractionists known as Réalités Nouvelles  (‘New Realities’). By the late 1950s, however, Gilot had reintroduced representative elements into her imagery again.

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She went on to master printmaking techniques such as lithography and aquatint. In 1980, she began her celebrated ‘Floating Paintings’, so called because these vast canvases — painted on both sides and supported only by a wooden bar at the top — hang away from a wall and seem almost to float.

More recently, she has pared the aesthetic of her work back, with the forces of nature, time and the cosmos among her preoccupations.

Franҫoise Gilot in 2010

Franҫoise Gilot in 2010. Photo: Colas Engel

Gilot’s daughter Aurelia Engel speaks of ‘the rich and full life’ that her mother led. ‘Having art, a man, children: it was very rare for a woman [in the mid-20th century] to be able to think they could have all of that. Convention said that they had to choose. But with my mother, she didn’t want to choose. She wanted the whole spectrum, and to live it with passion.’

And then, of course, there’s the upcoming show in Hong Kong, the artist’s first solo exhibition in Asia. ‘At my age I sometimes tire of life,’ she says, ‘but I never tire of painting.’

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