Françoise Gilot: ‘It Girl’ at 100

Françoise Gilot, seated rigidly on a sofa of creamy tone, seemed as solemn as an oracle. Her flame red suit, which had been meticulously fitted, only added to this impression. She explained that she wore red as a shield and a statement about her personality. “It lets me present myself in the way I choose,” I said.

Her face betrayed her with its mix of slyness, openness, and hesitant tenderness. Ms. Gilot said this multiple times during a rare interview at the end of last month in her Upper West Side, Manhattan apartment/studio.

Ignore the uproar she caused when her brutally honest description of her 10-year romance with Picasso, “Life With Picasso,” was published in 1964. (She left him for the first and only time.) That, or the renown she enjoys as a creative force:

More than a dozen museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, have displayed her work, driving up the value of her pieces.

Françoise Gilot: ‘It Girl’ at 100

On the seashore in August of 1948, Pablo Picasso was joined by Ms. Gilot and his nephew Javier Vilato.

Credit…International Center of Photography/Robert Capa

Some are currently shown in her spacious home, which features high, vaulted ceilings, massive bookcases, and a huge window that lets in calming north light and provides inspiration for her paintings. The studio is completely covered in artwork, both on the walls and in stacks around the edges. An abstract oil painting and a landscape painting are displayed on easels by the entrance.

Contrary to popular belief, Ms. Gilot is not a historical figure. “I’m not going to make a big deal out of being anything other than what I am,” she declared. Or less.”

Yes, it has been unsettling, if not entirely unwelcome, to find herself courted by art world pundits and the oddly assorted curiosity seekers in recent months, treating her with the kind of reverence one might reserve for a living repository of mid-20th-century culture — an idol and “it girl” at the unlikely age of 100.

She smiled and remarked, “The notion!,” hinting at something. “Painting is a silent art to me,” she said. We are not always sure what we communicate,” she laughed modestly, but adding that an artist’s work should speak for itself.

She welcomes guests to add their own sketches of the scene. Her advice was to let people “see” anything they wanted to see in order to form their own opinions about you. But I’m not what people take me to be.”

Then, she gave a sly nod in the direction of Aurelia Engel, her youngest daughter and her archivist, who was sitting close, suggesting that it may be safe to relax her guard. Don’t bother her by asking her to elaborate.

Much of what she has to say has already been published in her book “Life With Picasso,” co-written with American journalist Carlton Lake. Her agronomist father made it obvious to his daughter right away that he would have preferred a son. He punished her for being afraid of blood and heights by making her climb large cliffs and do daring jumps.

I was so Frustrated that that was the Only Emotion I Could Feel, She Writes.

But because I couldn’t express my fury, it grew inside of me.

At the age of eight, she had hardened up. I actively sought out challenges and peril. Another person had taken over my body. I went too far because I wanted to prove to myself that I could.

She abandoned her privileged childhood and the father who encouraged she pursue a career in law in favour of the bohemian way of life. According to the book, Picasso, who was 61 and a giant when he met Ms. Gilot, 21, convinced her to move into his apartment on the Rue Saint-Augustin in Paris with him with just a few words of charm.

He gave her the opportunity to work in a studio of her own and encouraged her artistic endeavours. She showered him with affection in return, raising their children, Claude and Paloma, and serving as his bookkeeper and intellectual interpreter. For a while, the connection thrived.

The famous Robert Capa shot shows Ms. Gilot strolling down the dunes at Golfe-Juan in the South of France, with Picasso shielding her from the sun with a massive parasol. However, family life was anything but idyllic for the couple. The Russian dancer Olga Khokhlova, his first wife, followed the pair on vacations around the world, and in his darkest moments, he would parade before her a series of would-be rivals, including the painter and photographer Dora Maar.

Ms. Gilot describes how Picasso alternately treated her with incredible compassion and savage harshness. Soon after Paloma is born, he tells her, “You were a Venus when I met you.” The ribs are protruding so we can count them; now you’re a Christ, and a Romanesque Christ at that.

During one particularly heated fight, he threatened to set her on fire. She describes how he held his lit cigarette close to her right face. “He must have thought I’d back off, but I wasn’t about to give him the joy of seeing me retreat.”

She took notes on his methods and thoughts so meticulously that she ran the risk of losing her own identity in the process. Picasso’s friend André Gide once reprimanded him, saying, “It’s clear to see there’s a level to her inner existence which has escaped you,” which she quotes in the book.

In recent years, Ms. Gilot has been more outspoken. Ms. Engel softly interrupted her as she told her mother’s story, saying, “Mother, you are 100.” as she leaned in to tell me, “We are around the same age, products of the same generation.”

Ms. Gilot Cocked an Eyebrow and Gave a Dismissive Shrug.

Women, she continued, were “trained to keep silent” at an early age. We learned early on that coming in second place is less of a challenge than coming in first. You try to reassure yourself that it’s okay, but it really isn’t. We need to have the ability to articulate our preferences and desires.

There have been times when she has used her attractiveness to get what she wants. She writes that Picasso invited her to learn engraving shortly after they met. On time, I wore a black velvet dress with a high white lace collar and styled my dark red hair in a coiffure reminiscent of the Infanta in a Velázquez painting.

After he made a comment about how inappropriate her outfit was for engraving, she let him know that she was well aware that he had no plans to actually instruct that day. I was only trying to seem pretty,” she informed him.

In her apartment, she reflected, “Perhaps I rather enjoy the way I appear.” In a riotous mashup of pink and gold stripes, royal blue, or her distinctive red, she can command attention. She emphasised the significance of “a sense of style.” “It’s like a window that makes you appear transparent but is actually a barrier.”

Physical Obstacles can be Useful.

She advised me to “keep my most private ideas to myself” and to “not make myself known to other people that much.” Not even with a husband? She added, “Especially with a husband,” and the room erupted into laughter.

Breaking up with Picasso took some time and finally happened in 1953. After dating for two years, she wed Ms. Engel’s artist father Luc Simon in 2004. After their split in 1962, she met and married polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk in 1970; their partnership lasted until Mr. Salk’s death in 1995.

During their marriages, “I think you had greater power to my father and to Jonas,” Ms. Engel remarked. You were really loving, encouraging them to find their voice.

Then Ms. Gilot said, “Just listen to what comes out of the mouths of children,” with a mocking expression of disappointment.

As She Mentioned in the Interview, Her Memoir is Full of Witty Remarks.

She writes of the time a young child named Claude begged to be let into her workshop. He hung around outside her door and pleaded with her, “I love you, Mama.” Just not happening. He told her he enjoyed her painting and, after some thought, added, “It’s better than Papa’s.” She gave in at that point and invited him inside.

Among Picasso’s famed circle of pals are Chagall, Braque, Matisse, and Giacometti; had she ever felt threatened by them? That idea never occurred to me,” she remarked. In any case, I’ve been painting since I was three years old. When you’re a kid, you don’t focus on yourself constantly. You don’t have the ability to do that.

The individuals I was with were so evolved,” she added. To say I was impressed would be an understatement.

She then added, “But they also helped me grow,” which was a bit tongue in cheek. To paraphrase, “If they are so magnificent, then I am not that small.”

Ms. Gilot is very significant in the perspective of the art community. A portrait of her with her daughter titled “Paloma à la Guitare” was painted in 1965 and sold at Sotheby’s in London in May for $1.3 million, seven times the high estimate.

From the London Sotheby’s (Women Artists) Sale Comes this Picture by Ms. Gilot.

Credit… Photograph by John Phillips for Getty Images Late last year, exhibitions of her art were unveiled by Sotheby’s at the Varfok Gallery in Budapest, the Galerie Patrick and Jillian Mac Fine Art in New Orleans, and the Estrine Museum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France.

The abstract canvas “Living Forest,” created in 1977, sold for $1.3 million at Christie’s Hong Kong in November as part of a major retrospective at the auction house.

She acts as if she can handle everything that comes her way. Ms. Engel claims that her daughter is less focused on her future prospects because her mother recently informed her, “It is already done.”

The paints have been put away for the time being by Ms. Gilot. Still, she is developing. Developing into an individual is “very challenging,” she said. People are always telling me to be myself. However, I am curious as to what constitutes nature.

She is not a fan of “too much order,” or the pursuit of uniformity. She advised that people maintain a certain degree of naivete and spontaneity. The correct answer is usually the one that pops into your head first.

She emphasised the idea by mentioning a series of paintings she did in the early 1960s that were influenced by the Theseus and Ariadne tale. “Perhaps they best characterise me at this point in time,” she reflected. To me, life is a complex maze. It’s not something you go up against. Basically, you follow the path of least resistance.

Alternatively, “You go the opposite way,” she said after a pause.