Auspiciously bridging the old year and the new, painted between 29 December 1948 and 1 January 1949, Pablo Picasso in this Femme dans un fauteuil exalted his lover and companion Françoise Gilot, transforming her into a baroque fantasia of twisting, circling, enveloping, organic forms. She has become a virtual femme-fleur—her neck and head form the pistil of a flower; stamens lend shape to her abundant tresses, worn long and loose in the post-war fashion, much to the artist’s delight. Picasso painted on the wall a symbolic, ovular shape framed within a lozenge, the ancient pictogram for the seed within a field. Françoise would give birth to a second child, their daughter Paloma, in April.
“You’re like a growing plant,” Picasso remarked to Françoise, while painting her portrait in early May 1946, not long after they began living together in Paris. “I’ve been wondering how I could get across the idea that you belong to the vegetable kingdom rather than the animal. I’ve never felt impelled to portray anyone else this way. It’s strange, isn’t it? I think it’s just right, though. It represents you” (quoted in F. Gilot with C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 119). The war in Europe had ended exactly one year before; Françoise had become in Picasso’s eyes the very embodiment of spring—in peacetime—the first in a decade when the continent was no longer caught up in the throes of total, existential warfare. Picasso experienced in her presence the exciting promise of a new beginning in his life and art. Thus would Françoise again become, two years hence, the beatific femme-fleur—on New Year’s Day, 1949.
Françoise was absolutely essential to the remarkable endeavor upon which Picasso set forth during the early post-war years, within a context that Michael FitzGerald delineated as “a triangle of ambitions: art, politics and the family” (Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, pp. 409-445). For a man in his late sixties, already so deeply immersed in his life’s work, this ambitious, threefold commitment should have been a daunting venture, not lightly undertaken. Picasso seemed keen to establish a new, more profound and durable relationship than he had with Dora Maar, one he would continue to find fulfilling into his old age. And so he set his sights on Françoise Gilot, a young woman and aspiring artist he met during the Occupation in 1943, who was some forty years his junior. “Her youth and vivacity, the chestnut color of her luminous eyes, and her intelligent and authoritative approach,” Roland Penrose rhapsodized, “gave her a presence which was both Arcadian and very much of this earth” (Picasso: His Life and Work, Berkeley, 1981, p. 358).
Even more astonishing is that Picasso was eager at this late stage to start an entirely new family—with not just one child as he had fathered in 1921 with his wife Olga (from whom he had been long separated), and subsequently in 1935 by his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter. Proud and exultant, he sired two children with Françoise—Claude and Paloma—in little less than a couple of years.
In the immediate post-war years, Picasso, moreover, pressed beyond the fame he had already achieved as the world’s leading and best-known, living artist to become an even more visible figure in the public eye. In the fall of 1944, following the liberation of Paris, the artist joined the French Communist Party; he lent his time and, when it suited him, the imprimatur of his art to the party cause, especially on behalf of their program for world peace. And, of course, ever paramount was his art, the be-all and end-all for virtually everything else in his life. The consummate opportunist, with the ability to shape any exigency to his needs, Picasso also commanded charismatic, magus-like powers that could induce—even compel—others to fall in step with his desires and needs.
During the late 1940s, Picasso very nearly perfected his vision of a classical Mediterranean paradise. Although the house “La Galloise” he had bought in Vallauris was, as Penrose described it, an “ungracious little pink villa,” with “bleak rooms” (ibid., p. 369), he found a vacant factory nearby in which to set up sufficiently spacious studios for painting and sculpture. He spent much of this time at the Madoura Pottery Works, taking newfound pleasure in making hand-decorated ceramic wares.
“In this fertile and friendly atmosphere Picasso inevitably resembled the chief of a tribe—a tribe which had as its nucleus the family at “La Galloise” and extended to the craftsmen at the potteries,” Penrose recalled. “The tribe also embraced many local tradespeople and artisans; the barber, the carpenter, the baker, and the fishermen from Golfe Juan joined the throng, all sharing admiration and affection for the little man with black eyes and white hair who had come to live among them and to whom the new celebrity of their town was due. He became a legend among them… Even if they did not understand his work they were conquered by his personality” (ibid., pp. 371 and 372).
Femme assise au fauteuil demonstrates Picasso’s evolving manner of painting at the very peak of this halcyon period. During the war the artist had employed a largely cubist-derived conception of structural form, to bear the brunt of the violent deformation and fragmentation that he often imposed on his portrait, figure, and still-life subjects, as the famous paintings of Dora Maar so compellingly reveal. During the late 1940s, he inclined toward a more fluid, organic, and lyrical treatment of his subjects, especially when painting Françoise and subsequently their young children as well.
Picasso generated the essential forms in Femme assise au fauteuil by abandoning any kind of formal geometry—such as he had only recently employed in the two versions of La Cuisine during November 1948 (Zervos, vol. 15, nos. 106 and 107). Instead, he gave full rein to a largely spontaneous, freewheeling, swerving, and looping calligraphy, resulting in arabesques that connote an entirely irregular amalgam of suggestive shapes. When colored in, these forms display their kinship with the contemporaneous vegetal cut-outs of Matisse—another devotee of the femme-fleur in his art—or the graphic, colored signs by which Miró represented the women, birds, and stars that typically populate his paintings. “[Picasso’s] procedure was anti-hierarchical,” Werner Spies observed, “subordinating no one form to another, but instead adding element to element to produce a pictorial continuum” (Picasso’s World of Children, exh. cat., Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, 1995, p. 48).
This period in Picasso’s painting entailed a pursuit of synthesis born of retrospection; the artist returned to various techniques he had developed at different times in the past and subsequently laid aside. He had typically used a curving, organic line in depicting Marie-Thérèse during the early 1930s—as Brigitte Léal characterized her, “Marie Thérèse incarnated a wild beauty, a sporty and healthy, beautiful plant” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1996, p. 387). At the time she first met Picasso, Françoise was 21, not so young as Marie-Thérèse when the artist introduced himself to her—she was still 17. The appeal of both women to Picasso certainly stemmed from the great distance between them and himself in their ages. Dora Maar was older, nearing 30, when she connected with Picasso. The intersecting lines that infer volume and rotundity in certain forms in the present painting derive from the basket-weaving technique that Picasso had developed to depict Dora, and occasionally Marie-Thérèse, in drawings and paintings during 1938-1939. In Femme assise au fauteuil styles seem to speak for memories; this painting, ostensibly a portrait of Françoise, may have—in the artist’s mind—brought all three women together as one.
By the end of 1950, however, various strands in Francoise’s life with Picasso had begun to unravel, beginning at home, creating increasing and unsettling strain, especially on her. Picasso was, of course, deeply involved in his painting, and he devoted whatever time he could spare from his work to the French Communist Party’s pro-peace activities. Françoise neither desired nor assumed any active role in this increasingly visible, public side of her partner’s life. Instead she remained out of the limelight, maintaining her privacy at “La Galloise” as best she could, having fully immersed herself in the full-time responsibilities of bringing up two their children, and shielding them from curious eyes.
Around the same time, following a hiatus of several years, Françoise took a renewed interest in furthering her own career as a painter. This development led to the first solo exhibition of her work in April 1952 at Galerie Louise Leiris. Jean Cassou of the French Ministry of Culture purchased one her paintings for the permanent collection of Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris. Picasso did not attend the opening, ostensibly to avoid stealing the spotlight from his companion and the debut of her work. Françoise had nonetheless detected ambivalent feelings in Picasso’s response to her resumption of painting, or more generally, to her efforts at making an independent career and reputation for herself.
Picasso instead preferred that Françoise continue devoting herself to their children; moreover, he had been pressuring her to have a third child, which she firmly refused to do. They began to grow apart, a situation further exacerbated by spreading rumors that Picasso had been seeing another woman, whom friends identified to Françoise as Geneviève Laporte, then in her mid-twenties. Françoise subsequently took her own lover, a young Greek man, with whom she had an affair that lasted several months.
As the summer of 1953 was drawing to a close, Françoise learned she must go to Paris for urgently needed surgery. She could not arrange for help at home to look after the children during her hospitalization. Picasso protested that he was too busy to let her take the time she needed. “I decided there was only one thing to do: return to Paris with the children,” she later wrote. “I served notice on Pablo that as of September 30 I was moving with them to the apartment in the Rue Gay-Lussac and enrolling them at the École Alsacienne for the fall term. Right up to the last minute Pablo was convinced I would back down. When the taxi pulled up and I got into it with the children and our bags, he as so angry he didn’t even say good-bye. He shouted ‘Merde!’ and went back into the house” (op. cit., 1964, p. 357).
Françoise had no regrets. At the conclusion of her memoir, she wrote: “Pablo told me, that first afternoon I visited him alone, in February 1944, that our relationship would bring light into both our lives. My coming to him, he said, seemed like a window that was opening up and he wanted it to remain open. I did, too, as long as it let in the light. When it no longer did, I closed it, much against my own desire. From that moment on, he burned all the bridges that connected me to the past I shared with him. But in doing so, he force me to discover myself and thus to survive. I shall never cease being grateful to him for that” (ibid., p. 367).
Françoise Gilot continued to paint. A monograph of her work was published in 2000. A selection of her pictures was included in the exhibition Picasso and Françoise Gilot: Paris-Vallauris, 1943-1953, curated by the late John Richardson in collaboration with Ms. Gilot, at the Gagosian Gallery, New York, in 2012. Taschen published a collection of Three Travel Sketchbooks in 2018. Earlier this year, 55 years since it first came out, The New York Review of Books republished My Life with Picasso, which deals with issues that are even more topical today than they were then—Françoise Gilot has become famous as the woman who said “No!” to Picasso, and walked away. On 26 November 2019, she will be 98 years old.