Françoise Gilot, a painter whose career was overshadowed by her romantic relationship with a much older Pablo Picasso, and whose 1964 memoir of their time together became an international bestseller, died Tuesday at the age of 101.
Her death at a Manhattan hospital was confirmed to the New York Times by her daughter, Aurelia Engel, who said the French artist had been dealing with heart and lung ailments.
Born into a prosperous Parisian family, Gilot was already a committed painter by the time she met Picasso, 40 years her senior, at a French restaurant when she was 21. And she was alone among his many mistresses to leave him, in 1953, after 10 years and two children together. “You imagine people will be interested in you?” she recalled the artist saying when she left 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 has touched mine so intimately.”
But Gilot rebuilt her career after the relationship that eclipsed her artwork and made her a social celebrity, even as Picasso pressured galleries to not show her work. She continued to exhibit her works, which now reside 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, and her paintings continued to sell – a 1965 portrait of her daughter, Paloma à la Guitare, sold for $1.3m at an online auction in 2021.
Picasso was unsuccessful in his attempts to block her candid 1964 memoir of their decade-long relationship, Life with Picasso, which became an international bestseller and was reissued by the New York Review Book Classics in 2019. The memoir so infuriated the Spanish artist that he permanently cut off contact with Gilot and their two children. It served as the inspiration for the 1996 film Surviving Picasso, directed by Merchant Ivory and starring Anthony Hopkins as Picasso to Natascha McElhone’s Gilot.
Gilot went on to marry the artist Luc Simon in 1955, with whom she shared a daughter, Aurelia. The couple divorced in 1962. In 1970, she married Jonas Salk, the American medical researcher responsible for one of the first successful polio vaccines. The couple split their time between La Jolla, California, and her studio in the south of France. She published another memoir of her life as an artist, Interface: The Painter and the Mask, in 1975. The following year, she became chairwoman of the fine arts department at the University of Southern California, a job she maintained until 1983.
After Salk’s death in 1995, she relocated to the Upper West Side in Manhattan, where she continued painting and overseeing exhibitions during somewhat of a career renaissance. In 2018, at the age of 96, she published a book of sketches made during numerous travels to India, Senegal and Venice between 1974 and 1981.
In addition to Engel, she is survived by her two children with Picasso: Claude Picasso, the director of the Picasso Administration, and Paloma, a fashion and jewelry designer, as well as four grandchildren.