Paula Rego has died at age 87. (photo © Nick Willing via Victoria Miro)

Portuguese-born British artist Paula Rego, whose figurative art focalized both the power and suffering of women, died on the morning of Wednesday, June 8 in her home in north London after a short illness, Victoria Miro Gallery announced. She was 87.

Born in 1935, Rego drew as a child to “entertain herself,” and by the age of eight, she had resolved to be an artist. In adolescence, Rego moved to the United Kingdom at her parents’ encouragement following conservative and nationalist dictator António de Oliveira Salazar’s ascent to power in Portugal. She enrolled in the Slade School of Fine Art in London, transporting herself right to the center of a burgeoning art scene retrospectively termed the School of London, populated by such figures as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and David Hockney. While there, she won the Slade Summer Composition prize for her 1954 painting “Under Milk Wood,” which drew inspiration from her childhood memories of Portuguese women gossipping in kitchens. She would later claim that it was the accomplishment she was most proud of.

In the 1960s, her breakout moment came when she showed work with members of the London Group, including Hockney. Rego developed her own distinctive style as these other artists searched alongside her for a figurative expressive vocabulary that could be inventive and escape cliché. Her approach to figuration was influenced by Surrealism and Magical Realism while containing a storybook quality, reflecting her interest in fairytales and folklore that first sprouted in childhood.

Paula Rego’s work is showing at the 59th Venice Biennale. (photo by Ela Bialkowska at OKNO Studio; courtesy Venice Biennale)

While studying at the Slade, she met Victor Willing, a fellow painter whom she would later marry. They had an occasionally explosive marriage, marked by infidelity and emotional turmoil. Despite this, Nick Willing, their son, told the Telegraph that what Rego talked about most was “how well he understood her and, in particular, her work … his genius was understanding the work better than anyone.” In 1966, Willing was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and his illness and its effects on their relationship became a recurring theme in Rego’s work.  

Among Rego’s most well-known works are Dog Woman” (1994) — a pastel on canvas that shows a woman crouched on the floor letting out a primal gnarl, inspired by a fairytale about an old single woman who begins to eat her pets one by one — and a series of paintings that portray women suffering the aftermath of illegal abortions. Her abortion series, which she embarked on after a 1988 referendum to legalize abortion in Portugal failed, was so impactful that it was considered to have played a role in mobilizing a second referendum in 2007, which ultimately succeeded.

Rego once said in an interview that she had “lots of abortions” and that were she unable to have one, she would have been forced by her family to move back to Portugal. “I couldn’t have done that, because that would be the end of me. I wouldn’t have been an artist, you see?”

AIR Gallery mounted Rego’s first major solo exhibition in London in 1981. In 2009, Portugal established a museum devoted to her work in Cascais, the Casa das Histórias Paula Rego (“Paula Rego House of Stories”), and just last year, a comprehensive retrospective of her work showed at the Tate Britain from July through October. Some of her works are currently on view as part of The Milk of Dreams group exhibition at the Venice Biennale, and a series of paintings she completed in 2022 are being exhibited at Victoria Miro Gallery in Venice through June 18.

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.