From Muse to Master

Defiant, passionate, and supremely committed to her art: to know her as nothing more than Picasso’s onetime muse is a grave disservice to the life and legacy of the incredible Françoise Gilot.  

 

 Françoise Gilot was only 21 when Pablo Picasso, already a living legend, approached her in a Paris bistrot with a bowl of cherries. It was a dream — the young painter was face to face with a renowned artist who would soon sweep her into a bohemian world inhabited by equally towering figures like Henri Matisse and Georges Braque. However, their first meeting also held hints of the volatile world she was about to step into: across the room, Picasso’s mistress Dora Maar watched helplessly as the notoriously headstrong Spaniard set his sights on her replacement. Gilot was undeterred. A romance with Pablo – 40 years her senior – was, in Gilot’s words, “a catastrophe I didn’t want to avoid.”

 

For the next decade, Gilot played her part as Picasso’s assistant, student, lover, and muse. He depicted her in thousands of paintings, drawings, and prints — most famously in La Femme Fleur. Meanwhile,  r. Their relationship was passionate, tumultuous, and unsustainable: after 10 years together, Gilot left him, becoming the only woman to have ever done so. Picasso’s explosive personality and capricious behavior may have ultimately undone their romance, but looking at Gilot’s work over the subsequent decades, one can’t help but feel that her real reason for walking away was simply to pursue her own artistic vision, finally free from the shadow of the world’s most well-known living artist.

Pablo never forgave her. “For you,” he warned, “reality is finished. It ends right here. If you attempt to take a step outside my reality… you’re headed straight for the desert.” That wasn’t an empty threat. At 71, Picasso was a household name; a mammoth figure in the art world whose influence could make or break careers, and he intended to use it. He explicitly forbade every art dealer he knew from buying Gilot’s work, and threatened museums not to display her exhibitions. Any museum that did, he warned, would never again display anything of his own. Picasso’s thirst for revenge, which he pursued for the rest of his life, turned Gilot into a pariah, casting her into relative obscurity for years.

None of it stopped Gilot. True to her vision, she resolutely continued to develop her prowess as an artist, despite a near-total lack of recognition and the overt hostility of Picasso’s admirers, who seemed compelled to denounce her in order to gain favor with the aging artist. Her work continuously evolved as she experimented with bold colors, light and airy forms, and minimalist expression loaded with introspective meaning. Slowly, she would transcend the cubist influence of her time with Pablo, finally forming a distinct, organic, and instantly recognizable style of her own. Gilot had brought her paintbrush to Picasso’s ‘desert’, and undaunted by the heavy silence, began painting her way out of it.

More than half a century later, Gilot – now 100 years old – is still marching forward. She continues to paint every day, and her quiet commitment to her craft is finally gaining the recognition it deserves. Recent years have seen a serious reappraisal of her artwork, at last appreciated in its own light, free from the shadow of the past she bravely left behind. The world’s most preeminent museums – once barred from exhibiting her work – have added her paintings to their permanent collections, and the days when she was remembered as nothing more than Picasso’s muse are long gone. Gilot has lived to see herself take her rightful place among the masters.

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