A Life Examined: Françoise Gilot

Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet

Françoise Gilot—painter, writer, erstwhile muse and lover of Pablo Picasso—reflects on her past 94 years. 

I have the same feelings I had when I was young—I have not changed my admiration,” says the painter and writer Françoise Gilot of Pablo Picasso, with whom she shared a tumultuous and mutually inspiring romance in the middle of last century. “He was a genius, but he became a star, and that I don’t like.” In a wide-ranging interview at her Manhattan studio shortly after the publication of her new book—About Women (Nan A. Talese), written with Lisa Alther—the 94-year-old Gilot looks back on a life fully lived, with all the clear-eyed passion she brought to her best-selling 1964 tell-all, Life with Picasso

“Everybody in my family wanted me to be a boy. I was dressed as a boy most of the time. Sometimes tomboys become beautiful girls. When I was 15, I looked in the mirror and I thought, Not exactly what I expected, but this can be useful, too.” 

“When I met Picasso, I was 21. When I left him, I was 31. I was still quite young. I had studied more things than people thought—I got my baccalaureate at 16, when most people get it at 18. So I was not very easy to destroy.” 

“[Poet and filmmaker] Jean Cocteau was the one who didn’t drop me like a bag of dirty linen [after the publication of Life with Picasso]. He was very courageous. The people profiting from being close to Picasso, writing about him, didn’t want me writing, too: They knew I knew much more. They had to kill me, so to speak. But they couldn’t. I had already moved to England and the United States. I was lucky my English was so good.” 

“Painting is not about being clever. If you’re clever, you’ve missed it.” 

“I can be very interested in [Picasso’s] early work, like the beginning of Cubism. Or even, let’s say, all the way up until I met him—then he went downhill.”  

“Most of the time I am still painting every day. I’ve done 2,000 paintings in my whole life. In the past I used to say I had two art critics on my left shoulder—nasty mosquitoes. And I could hear their voices. I thought, What can I do to silence them? That’s why I have music when I work: I can’t hear them, and I go directly to my goal.” 

“My paintings come from within myself: When I am ready to paint them, it just happens. My hand will know what to do. That’s what Picasso said: ‘Je ne cherche pas, je trouve’: I don’t look for, I find.”

“I was so shocked when I got to be 90—nobody in my family ever lived that long. Considering my age, I am more or less in shape. I still do calisthenics. And I never look at what other people are doing. I am my origin, and I know what I know. Try to be yourself. It’s much more difficult.”