Francoise Gilot was an accomplished French artist whose works include more than 1,600 paintings. She was appointed an Officer of the Légion d’honneur, the French government’s highest honor for the arts. She died in a New York City hospital on June 6, 2023, at the age of 101, after suffering serious heart and lung disease. Her portraits are featured in more than a dozen leading museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In 2021 her painting “Paloma à la Guitare,” a portrait of her daughter, sold for $1.3 million at Sotheby’s in London.
In spite of her accomplishments as an artist, she was best known as the author of Life with Picasso, that told how she walked out on the abusive man who was probably the most influential painter and sculptor of the 20th century. Later, Gilot married Jonas Salk, the American researcher who developed the first safe polio vaccine. I knew about Gilot because my mentor in medical school was Joseph Melnick, who was in charge of the first world-wide testing of the Salk polio vaccine.
Lions Mate With Lions
Her life with Picasso was a story of pain and survival from brutal abuse. Picasso was born in 1881, so he was forty years older than Gilot. Picasso was a noted womanizer who had uncountable lovers before, during and after Gilot’s time with him. Two other women in Picasso’s life died by suicide and two suffered from serious depression:
• Picasso’s first wife, dancer Olga Khokhlova, suffered severe depression after he left her for Gilot
• Artist Dora Maar had a nervous breakdown.
• Another lover who was even younger than Gilot, Marie-Therese Walter, hung herself
• His second wife, Jacqueline Roque, shot herself
Life with Picasso sold more than a million copies. Gilot wrote, “Pablo was the greatest love of my life, but you had to take steps to protect yourself. I did, I left before I was destroyed.” When asked how she came to be associated with two of the most influential men in the world, Picasso and Salk, she responded, “Lions mate with lions. They don’t mate with mice.”
She first met Picasso in 1943 in occupied France during World War II in a Paris restaurant. He brought a bowl of cherries to her table and invited her to visit his studio. The fact that he was 61 and she was only 21, and was married to Russian dancer Khokhlova and was already philandering with French photographer, painter and poet Maar didn’t seem to stop him. She was highly educated with degrees from the Sorbonne, the British Institute in Paris and Cambridge University and even had passed her written exams for a law degree. Gilot lived with Picasso on and off for 10 years and had two children, even though they never married. Gilot was often harassed on the streets of Paris by Picasso’s legal wife, Olga Khokhlova. Gilot modeled for his paintings and one painting of her, “Femme assise” sold for $9.6 million at auction in London in 2012.
After Gilot left him in 1953, Picasso destroyed many of her artworks, books and letters, and told art dealers that they could not sell his paintings if they sold those painted by Gilot. When Picasso was 80, he married model Jacqueline Roque, at least in part to try to deprive Gilot’s children from inheriting any of Picasso’s vast fortune.
Lessons from Gilot’s Long and Productive Life
It often takes major sacrifices to become outstanding in your field of endeavor. You have to decide how much you want to sacrifice to become famous and successful. Françoise Gaime Gilot wanted to become a successful and famous painter, so she put up with tremendous abuse from one of the world’s most famous painters. Only she would be able to say whether it was it worth it.
Françoise Gaime Gilot
November 26, 1921 – June 6, 2023