French artist Françoise Gilot painting in her studio in Fulham, London in 1964 (photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Prolific French artist Françoise Gilot died at age 101 last Tuesday, June 6, her daughter Aurelia Engel confirmed. Gilot was reportedly suffering from heart and lung problems when she passed at Mount Sinai West Hospital in Manhattan. In addition to her widely celebrated art practice, Gilot is well-known for her decade-long relationship with Pablo Picasso — and is even more revered for leaving him.

Gilot was born in Paris in 1921 to businessman and agronomist Emile Gilot and watercolorist Madeleine Renault-Gilot. She grew up in Neuilly-sur-Seine with her family, and against her father’s wishes, she decided at age five that she would become an artist, beginning art lessons with her mother two years later. Gilot became alienated from her father during her university years, switching out her international law course with art classes behind his back during the late 1930s ahead of World War II. By 1941, she had left the law track entirely to devote her time to her art practice and was introduced to Picasso through a friend in 1943, when she was 22. Gilot gave birth to their son, Claude, in 1947, and their daughter, Paloma, in 1949 — both of whom made frequent appearances in her and Picasso’s work in the following years.

Throughout her life, Gilot staunchly advocated for her work and legacy to be considered independently of her relationship with male artists, lamenting being referred to as “Picasso’s lover” or “a friend of Matisse.”

“In art subjectivity is everything; I accepted what [Picasso] did but that did not mean I wanted to do the same,” she told the Guardian in a 2016 interview. By 1953, Gilot had left Picasso, who had made little effort to conceal his affairs or mitigate his explosive attitude.

Gilot spent a large portion of the 1940s shifting from mentor to mentor, unsatisfied with rigid traditionalism, but not wholly convinced to abandon figuration. During the summer of 1945, Gilot worked exclusively in graphite for its flexibility and depth in value. According to Gilot’s archives, which are managed by Engel, Gilot’s work transitioned during the late 1940s from minimalist gouaches incised with pencil to oil paintings on board, maintaining the same intaglio effect as with her graphite additions.

Francoise Gilot’s “Paloma à la Guitare” (1965), oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 49 1/4 inches, sold by Sotheby’s in May 2021 (photo by John Phillips/Getty Images for Sotheby’s)

By the mid-1950s, Gilot began to focus on establishing a recognizable identity throughout her practice. She married French artist Luc Simon and gave birth to her third and final child, Aurelia, in 1956. Gilot had refined her handle of figurative linework and abstracted landscapes, securing an exhibition at the Galerie Coard in Paris in 1959 and opening the doors for international showcases across Europe and North America in the following decade.

Throughout the 1960s, Gilot shuttled between the two continents with multiple opportunities to exhibit or participate in various printmaking workshops, spending some time in Greece to consider ancient mythologies in her practice before returning to her roots in figuration and landscape work. She published her first memoir, Life with Picasso, in 1964 despite Picasso’s three attempts to prevent the manuscript from being printed. (A reissue of the book, published in 2019 by the New York Review of Books, made Hyperallergic‘s list of top ten books that year.) In 1969, Gilot was introduced to Polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk during a visit to La Jolla, California, and the two bonded over a shared love of architecture. Salk and Gilot married in 1970 as she split her time between Europe and the States, expanding her practice with additional workshops and exhibitions.

Gilot was supremely successful throughout the 1970s, publishing her second novel, exhibiting her work across the United States in both galleries and museums, and becoming chair of the fine arts department at the University of Southern California. In the early ’70s, Gilot began exploring the abstraction of movement in her work through enlarged canvases and vibrant color fields. Her first major retrospective took place at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, in 1979, followed by an additional 1987 retrospective at the Musee Picasso in Antibes, France.

After Salk died in 1995, Gilot relocated to New York City, but continued to pursue her passion of seeking inspiration in travel; in 2018, she released a series of sketchbooks documenting her journeys to Venice, India, and Senegal. She produced work until up to a few years before her death, yielding over eight decades of artistry, if one considers her childhood endeavors. She was awarded the title of Officier de la Legion d’Honneur by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010, and her works are in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the El Paso Museum of Art, among others.

In her introduction for the 2019 reissue of Gilot’s memoir, American novelist Lisa Alther, a close friend of the artist for many years, recalled Picasso’s threatening words to Gilot when she left him. He suggested that she would never find recognition for her work.

“Happily, this grim forecast has turned out to be incorrect,” Alther wrote. “Gilot has lived a full life, both professionally and personally. Her body of work includes more than six thousand pieces that are eagerly sought after when they appear in galleries and at auctions … In contrast to Picasso’s dire prediction about Gilot’s dismal future without him, she has enjoyed a long life and a successful career, surrounded by children, grandchildren, collectors, dealers, admirers, and friends.”

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...