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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

August 1964

Pablo Picasso's Love: La Femme-Fleur

The love affair between Pablo Picasso, aged 61, and Françoise Gilot, 21, began in Paris in the spring of 1943 during the German occupation of France. She was a student of art, the only child of a domineering father who brought her up as if she had been his son. In her mood of rebellion she found in Picasso a gentleness and depth of understanding she had not known in any other man. They were to live together for the next ten years; she was to bear him two children. Their relationship forms the substance of a new book, LIFE WITH PICASSO, to be published this winter by McGraw-Hill. This excerpt is taken from the opening part.

by Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake

I met Pablo Picasso in May, 1943, during the German occupation of France. I was twenty-one, and I felt already that painting was my whole life. At that time I had as houseguest an old school friend named Geneviève, who had come up from her home near Montpellier, in the south of France, to spend a month with me. With her and the actor Alain Cuny, I went to have dinner one Wednesday at a small restaurant then much frequented by painters and writers. It was called Le Catalan and was in the Rue des Grands-Augustins on the Left Bank, near Notre Dame.

Return to Flashback: Portraits of Picasso When we got there that evening and were seated, I saw Picasso for the first time. He was at the next table with a group of friends: a man, whom I didn't recognize, and two women. One of the women I knew to be Marie-Laure, Vicomtesse de Noailles, the owner of an important collection of paintings, who is now something of a painter herself. At that time, though she had not yet taken up painting -- at least publicly -- but she had written a poetic little book called The Tower of Babel. She had a long, narrow, somewhat decadent-looking face framed by an ornate coiffure that reminded me of Rigaud's portrait of Louis XIV in the Louvre.

The other woman, Alain Cuny whispered to me, was Dora Maar, a Yugoslav photographer and painter, who, as everyone knew, had been Picasso's companion since 1936. Even without his help I would have had no trouble identifying her, because I knew Picasso's work well enough to recognize that this was the woman who was shown in the Portrait of D . . . M . . . in its many forms and variants. She had a beautiful oval face but a heavy jaw, which is a characteristic trait of almost all the portraits Picasso has made of her. Her hair was black and pulled back in a severe, starkly dramatic coiffure. I noticed her intense bronze-green eyes, and her slender hands with their long, tapering fingers. The most remarkable thing about her was her extraordinary immobility. She talked little, made no gestures at all, and there was something in her bearing that was more than dignity -- a certain rigidity. There is a French expression that is very apt: she carried herself like the holy sacrament.

I was a little surprised at Picasso's appearance. My impression of what he ought to look like had been founded on the photograph by Man Ray in the special Picasso number of the art review Cahiers d'Art published in 1936: dark hair, bright, flashing eyes, very squarely built, rugged -- a handsome animal. When I saw him now, with his hair graying to white, and with an absent look -- either distracted or bored -- he had a withdrawn, oriental appearance that reminded me of the statue of the Egyptian scribe in the Louvre. There was nothing sculptural or fixed in his manner of moving, however; he gesticulated, he twisted and turned, he got up, he moved rapidly back and forth.

As the meal went on I noticed Picasso watching us, and from time to time acting a bit for our benefit. It was evident that he recognized Cuny, and he made remarks that we were obviously supposed to overhear. Whenever he said something particularly amusing, he smiled at us rather than just at his dinner companions. Finally he got up and came over to our table. He brought with him a bowl of cherries and offered some to all of us, in his strong Spanish accent calling them cerisses, with a soft, double-s sound.

Geneviève was a very beautiful girl, of French Catalan ancestry but a Grecian type, with a nose that was a direct prolongation of her forehead. It was a head, Picasso later told me, that he felt he had already painted in his work of the Ingresque or Roman period. She often accentuated that Grecian quality, as she did that evening, by wearing a flowing, pleated dress.

"Well, Cuny," Picasso said. "Are you going to introduce me to your friends?" Cuny introduced us and then said, "Françoise is the intelligent one." Pointing to Geneviève, he said, "She's the beautiful one. Isn't she just like an Attic marble?"

Picasso shrugged. "You talk like an actor," he said. "How would you characterize the intelligent one?"

That evening I was wearing a green and brown turban that covered much of my brow and my cheeks. Geneviève answered his question.

"Françoise is a Florentine virgin," she said.

"But not the usual kind," Cuny said. "A secularized virgin." Everybody laughed.

"All the more interesting if she's not the ordinary kind," Picasso said. "But what do they do, your two refugees from the history of art?"

"We're painters," Geneviève answered.

Picasso burst out laughing. "That's the funniest thing I've heard all day. Girls who look like that can't be painters." I told him that Geneviève was only on holiday in Paris and that she was a pupil of Maillol in Banyuls, and that although I wasn't anybody's pupil, I was very much a painter. In fact, I said, we were having a joint exhibition of paintings and drawings right at the moment in a gallery in the Rue Boissy d'Anglas, behind the Place de la Concorde.

Picasso looked down at us in mock surprise. "Well, I'm a painter, too," he said. "You must come to my studio and see some of my paintings."

"When?" I asked him.

"Tomorrow. The next day. When you want to."

Geneviève and I compared notes. We told him we'd come not tomorrow, not the next day, but perhaps the first of the next week. Picasso bowed. "As you wish," he said. He shook hands all around, picked up his bowl of cherries, and went back to his table.

THE following Monday morning, about eleven o'clock, Geneviève and I climbed a dark, narrow, winding staircase hidden away in a corner of the cobblestone courtyard at 7 Rue des Grands Augustins and knocked on the door of Picasso's apartment. After a long wait it was opened about three or four inches, and the pointed nose of his secretary, Jaime Sabartés, came through. We had never seen him before, but we knew who he was. We had seen reproductions of drawings Picasso had made of him, and Cuny had told us that Sabartés would be the one who received us. He looked at us rather suspiciously and asked, "Do you have an appointment?" I said we did. He let us in. He looked anxious as he peered out from behind his thick-lensed glasses.

We entered an anteroom where there were many plants and birds: turtledoves and a number of exotic species in wicker cages. The plants were not pretty; they were the spiky green ones you see frequently in copper pots in a concierge's loge. Here they were arranged more appealingly, though, and in front of the high open window they made a rather pleasing effect. I had seen one of those plants a month before in a recent portrait of Dora Maar that was hung -- in spite of the Nazi ban on Picasso's work -- in an out-of-the-way alcove of the Louise Leiris gallery in the Rue d'Astorg. It was a magnificent portrait, in pink and gray. In the background of the picture there was a framework of panels like the panes of the large antique window I now saw, a cage of birds, and one of those spiky plants.

From that room we followed Sabartés into a second one, which was very long. I saw several old Louis XIII sofas and chairs and, spread out on them, guitars, mandolins, and other musical instruments which, I supposed, Picasso must have used in his painting during the Cubist period. He later told me that he had bought them after he painted the pictures, not before, and kept them there now as a kind of remembrance of his Cubist days. The room had noble proportions, but everything was at sixes and sevens. The long table that stretched out before us and two long carpenter's tables, one after the other against the right-hand wall, were covered with an accumulation of book, magazines, newspapers, photographs, hats, and miscellaneous clutter. On top of one of these tables was a rough piece of amethyst crystal, about the size of a human head. In the center of it was a small, totally enclosed cavity filled with what appeared to be water. On a shelf underneath it I saw several men's suits folded up and three or four pairs of old shoes.

As we walked past the long table in the center of the room, I noticed that Sabartés moved out around a dull brownish object lying on the floor, near the door that led into the next room. When I came closer to it, I saw that it was a sculpture of a skull cast in bronze.

The next room we went into was a studio almost entirely filled with sculptures. I saw The Man With the Sheep, now cast in bronze and standing in the square at Vallauris, but at that time simply in plaster. Then there were a number of large heads of women that Picasso had done at Boisgeloup in 1932. There was a wild disorder of bicycle handlebars, rolls of canvas, a fifteenth-century Spanish polychromed wooden Christ, and a weird and spindly sculpture of a woman holding an apple in one hand and what looked like a hot-water bottle in the other arm.

What hit me hardest, though, was a glowing canvas by Matisse, a still life of 1912, with a bowl of oranges on a pink tablecloth against a light ultramarine and brighter pink background. I remember also a Vuillard, a Douanier Rousseau, and a Modigliani, but above all, in that shadowy studio, the glow of color of the Matisse was particularly striking among the sculptures. I couldn't prevent myself from saying, "Oh, what a beautiful Matisse." Sabartés turned around and said austerely, "Here there is only Picasso."

BY ANOTHER little winding staircase, on the far side of the room, we climbed to the second floor of Picasso's apartments. Upstairs the ceiling was much lower. We passed into a large studio. On the other side of the room I saw Picasso, surrounded by a group of six or eight. He was dressed in an old pair of trousers that hung loosely from his hips, and a blue-striped sailor's jersey. When he saw us, his face lighted up in a pleasant smile. He left the group and came over to us. Sabartés muttered something about our having an appointment and then went downstairs.

"Would you like me to show you around?" Picasso asked. We said we would indeed. We hoped he would show us some of his paintings, but we didn't dare ask. He took us back downstairs into the sculpture studio.

"Before I came here," he said, "this lower floor was used as a workshop by a weaver, and the upper floor was an actor's studio -- Jean-Louis Barrault's. It was here, in this very room, that I painted Guernica." He settled back onto one of the Louis XIII tables in front of a pair of windows that looked out onto an interior courtyard. "Other than that, though, I hardly ever work in this room. I did L'Homme au Mouton here," he said, pointing to the large plaster sculpture of the man holding the sheep in his arms, "but I do my painting upstairs, and I generally work on my sculpture in another studio I have a little way up the street.

"That covered spiral stairway you walked up to get here," he said, "is the one the young painter in Balzac's Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu climbed when he came to see old Pourbus, the friend of Poussin who painted pictures nobody understood. Oh, the whole place is full of historical and literary ghosts. Well, let's get back upstairs," he said. He slid off the table, and we followed him up the winding staircase. He took us through the big studio, around the group of people, none of whom looked up at us as we passed through, and into a small room in the far corner.

"This is where I do my engraving," he said. "And look here." He walked over to a sink and turned on a faucet. After a while the water became steamy. "Isn't it marvelous," he said. "In spite of the war, I have hot water. In fact," he added, "you could come here and have a hot bath any time you liked."

About one o'clock the group around us broke up, and everyone started to leave. The thing that struck me as most curious that first day was the fact that Sabartés was obviously a kind of monk of the Picasso religion, and all the people who were there had the air of being completely immersed in that religion except the one to whom it was addressed. He seemed to be taking it all for granted but not attaching any importance to it, as if he were trying to show us that he didn't have any desire to be the central figure in a cult.

As we turned to go, Picasso said, "If you want to come back again, by all means come. But if you do come, don't come like pilgrims to Mecca. Come because you like me, because you find my company interesting, and because you want to have a simple, direct relationship with me. If you only want to see my paintings, you'd better go to a museum."

I didn't take that remark of his too seriously. In the first place, there were almost no paintings of his to be seen in any of the Paris museums at that time. Then, too, since he was on the Nazi list of proscribed painters, no private gallery was able to show his work openly or in quantity. And looking at another painter's work in a book of reproductions is no satisfaction for a painter. So if anyone wanted to see more of his work -- as I did -- there was almost nowhere to go except 7 Rue des Grands-Augustins.

A few days after that first visit I dropped in at the gallery where Geneviève and I were having our exhibition. The woman who ran it told me excitedly that a little earlier a short man with piercing dark eyes, wearing a blue-and-white-striped sailor's jersey, had come in. She had realized, after the first shock, that he was Picasso. He had studied the paintings intently and then walked out without saying anything, she told me. When I got home, I told Geneviève about his visit. I said he had probably gone to see how bad our paintings were and prove to himself the truth of what he had said when he met us at Le Catalan: "Girls who look like that can't be painters."

Geneviève took a more idealistic view of it. "I think it's a nice human touch," she said. "It shows he takes a real interest in young artists' work."

I wasn't convinced. At best it was curiosity, I felt. "He just wanted to see what we had inside -- if anything."

"Oh, you're so cynical," she said. "He seemed to me very kind, open-minded, and simple."

I told her I thought he perhaps wanted to appear simple, but I had looked into those eyes of his and seen something quite different. It hadn't frightened me, though. In fact it made me want to go back. I temporized for about another week and then, one morning, with Geneviève in tow, returned to the Rue des Grands-Augustins. It was Sabartés, of course, who opened the door for us again, sticking his head outside like a little sand fox. This time he admitted us without comment.

Remembering from our first visit the very pleasant entrance with its many plants and exotic birds in wicker cages lighted by the high window, we had decided to add a little color to the greenery, and so we arrived carrying a pot of cineraria. When Picasso saw us he laughed.

"Nobody brings flowers to an old gent," he said. Then he noticed that my dress was the same color as the blossoms, or vice versa. "You think of everything, I can see that," he said. I pushed Geneviève in front of me. "Here's beauty, followed by intelligence," I reminded him.

He looked us over carefully, then said, "That remains to be seen. What I see now are simply two very different types of beauty: archaic Greece and Jean Goujon."

On our first visit he had shown us only a few pictures. This time he made up for it. He piled them up almost like a scaffolding. There was a painting on the easel; he stuck another on top of that, one on each side, piled others on top of those, until it seemed like a highly skilled balancing act of the human-pyramid kind. As I found out later, he used to arrange them that way almost every day. They always held together by some kind of miracle, but as soon as anyone else touched them, they came tumbling down. That morning there were cocks, a buffet of Le Catalan with cherries against a background of brown, black, and white: small still lifes, some with lemon and many with glasses, a cup, and a coffeepot, or with fruit, against a checked tablecloth. He seemed to be playing with colors as he sorted them out and tossed them up onto the scaffolding. There was a large nude, a three-quarter rear view that one saw at the same time front view, in earth tones, very close to the palette of the Cubist period. There were also scenes of the Vert Galant, that little tip of the Ile de la Cite on the other side of the Pont Neuf. In these paintings there were trees on which each branch was made out of separate spots of paint, much in the manner of Van Gogh. There were several showing mothers with enormous children whose heads, reached the very top of the canvas, somewhat in the spirit of the Catalan primitives.

Many of the paintings he showed us that morning had a culinary basis: skinned rabbits, or pigeons with peas, a kind of reflection of the hard time most people were having to get food. There were others almost like papiers collés, with a sausage stuck onto an otherwise carefully composed background; or portraits of women wearing hats topped with forks or fishes and other kinds of food. Finally he showed us a group of portraits of Dora Maar, very tortured in form, which he had painted over the past two years. They are among the finest paintings he has ever done, I believe.

Suddenly he decided he had shown us enough He walked away from his pyramid. "I saw your exhibition," he said, looking at me. I didn't have the courage to ask him what he thought of it, so I just looked surprised. "You're very gifted for drawing," he went on. "I think you should keep on working -- hard -- every day. I'll be curious to see how your work develops. I hope you'll show me other things from time to time." Then he added, to Geneviève, "I think you've found the right teacher in Maillol. One good Catalan deserves another."

Little else he said that morning registered very deeply with me. I left the Rue des Grands-Augustin feeling very buoyant, impatient to get back to my studio and go to work.

SOON after that second visit, Geneviève went back to the Midi. I wanted to return to the Rue des Grands-Augustins by myself, but I felt it was a little early to show Picasso any new work, even though he had been more than cordial in his invitation to come see him as often as I wanted to. I wondered more than once whether, if he had met me alone, he would even have noticed me. Meeting me with Geneviève, he saw a theme that runs through his entire work and was particularly marked during the 1930s: two women together, one fair and the other dark, the one all curves and the other externalizing her internal conflicts, with a personality that goes beyond the pictorial; one, the kind of woman who has a purely aesthetic and plastic life with him; the other, the type whose nature is reflected in dramatic expression. When he saw the two of us that morning, he saw in Geneviève a version of formal perfection, and in me, who lacked that formal perfection, a quality of unquiet which was actually an echo of his own nature. That created an image for him, I'm sure. He even said, "I'm meeting beings I painted twenty years ago." It was certainly one of the original causes of the interest he showed.

When I did go back to see him, it wasn't long before he began to make very clear another side of the nature of his interest in me.

There were always quite a few people waiting to see him, some in the long room on the lower floor, where Sabartés held forth, others in the large painting atelier on the floor above. Picasso, I soon noticed, was always looking for some excuse to get me off into another room where he could be alone with me for a few minutes. The first time, I remember, the pretext was some tubes of paint he wanted to give me. Having an idea that there was more involved than just paints, I asked him why he didn't bring them to me. Sabartés, never very far away, said, "Yes, Pablo, you should bring them to her."

"Why?" Picasso asked. "If I'm going to give her a gift, the least she can do is make the effort to go after it."

Another morning, I had gone there on my bicycle, since that was the only way one could get around conveniently at that period. En route it had started to rain, and my hair was soaking wet. "Just look at the poor girl," Picasso said to Sabartés. "We can't leave her in that state." He took me by the arm. "You come with me into the bathroom and let me dry your hair," he said .

"Look, Pablo," Sabartés said, "perhaps I should get Inès to do it. She'll do it better."

"You leave Inès where she is," Picasso said. "She's got her own work to do." He guided me into the bathroom and carefully dried my hair for me.

Of course, Picasso didn't have a situation like that handed to him every time. He had to manufacture his own. And so the next time it might be some special drawing paper he had uncovered in one of the countless dusty corners of the atelier. But whatever the pretext, it was quite clear that he was trying to discover to what degree I might be receptive to his attentions. I had no desire to give him grounds to make up his mind, one way or the other. I was having too much fun watching him to figure it all out.

One day he said to me, "I want to show you my museum." He took me into a small room adjoining the sculpture studio. Against the left-hand wall was a glass case about seven feet high, five feet wide, and a foot deep. It had four or five shelves and held many different kinds of art objects.

"These are my treasures," he said. He led me over to the center of the vitrine and pointed to a very striking wooden foot on one of the shelves. "That's Old Kingdom," he said. "There's all of Egypt in that foot. With a fragment like that, I don't need the rest of the statue."

Ranged across the top shelf were about ten very slender sculptures of women, from a foot to a foot and a half high, cast in bronze. "Those I carved in wood in 1931," he said. "And look over here." He pushed me very gently toward the end of the case and tapped on the glass in front of a group of small stones incised with female profiles, the head of a bull and of a faun. "I did those with this," he said, and fished out of his pocket a small jackknife, labeled "Opinel," with a single folding blade. On another shelf, and next to a wooden hand and forearm that were recognizably Easter Island, I noticed a small flat piece of bone about three inches long. On its long sides were painted parallel lines imitating the teeth of a comb. In the center, between the two strips of "teeth," was a cartouche showing two bugs meeting in head-on combat, one about to swallow up the other. I asked Picasso what that was. "That's a comb for lice," he said. "I'd give it to you but I don't imagine you'd have any use for it." He ran his fingers through my hair and parted it at the roots here and there. "No," he said, "you seem to be all right in that department."

I moved back to the center of the vitrine. There was a cast of his sculpture A Glass of Absinthe, about nine inches high, with a hole cut into the front of the glass and a real spoon on top, bearing a simulated lump of sugar. "I did that long before you were born," he said. "Back in 1914. I modeled it in wax and added a real spoon and had six of them cast in bronze, then painted each one differently. Here, this will amuse you." He put his arm around me and sidled over to another part of the case, drawing me along with him. I saw a small matchbox on which he had painted the head of a woman in a post-Cubist manner. I asked him when he had done that.

"Oh, two or three years ago," he said. "These, too." He pointed to a group of cigarette boxes on which he had painted women seated in armchairs. Three of them, I noticed, were dated 1940. "You see, I built them up in relief by pasting other bits of cardboard in various places," he said. He pointed to the one in the center. "For that one, I sewed on the panel that makes the central part of the torso. Notice the hair. It's pretty close to being hair -- it's string. These things are midway between sculpture and painting, I suppose."

On the opposite side of the room from the vitrine was a table covered with tools. I walked over to it. Picasso followed me. "These I use in finishing my sculpture," he said. He picked up a file. "This is something I use all the time." He tossed it back and picked up another. "This one is for finer surfaces." One after another he handled a plane, pincers, nails of all kinds -- "for engraving on plaster" -- a hammer, and with each one he came closer to me. When he dropped the last piece back onto the table he turned abruptly and kissed me, full on the mouth. I let him. He looked at me in surprise.

"You don't mind?" he asked. I said no -- should I? He seemed shocked. "That's disgusting," he said. "At least you could have pushed me away. Otherwise I might get the idea I could do anything I wanted to." I smiled and told him to go ahead. By now he was thrown completely off the track. I knew very well he didn't know what he wanted to do, or even whether, and I had an idea that by saying, placidly, yes, I would discourage him from doing anything at all, so I said, "I'm at your disposition." He looked at me cautiously, then asked, "Are you in love with me?" I said I couldn't guarantee that, but at least I liked him and I felt very much at ease with him, and I saw no reason for setting up in advance any limits to our relationship. Again he said, "That's disgusting. How do you expect me to seduce anyone under conditions like that? If you're not going to resist -- well, then it's out of the question. I'll have to think it over." And he walked back into the sculpture studio to join the others.

A FEW days later he brought up the question in a similar manner. I told him I could promise him nothing in advance, but he could always try and see for himself. That nettled him. "In spite of your youth," he said, "I get the impression that you've had a lot of experience in that sort of thing." I said no, not really. "Well, then, I don't understand you," he said. "It doesn't make sense, the way you act." I said I couldn't help that. That's the way it was, sense or nonsense. Besides, I wasn't afraid of him, so I couldn't very well act as though I were. "You're too complicated for me," he said. That slowed him down for a while longer.

A week or so later, I went to see him. Using the by now familiar technique, he managed to maneuver me into his bedroom. He picked up a book from a pile on a chair near his bed. "Have you read the Marquis de Sade?" he asked me. I told him no. "Aha! I shock you, don't I?" he said, looking very proud of himself. I said no. I told him that although I hadn't read Sade, I had no objection to it. And I had read Choderlos de Laclos and Restif de Bretonne. As for Sade, I could make out without it but perhaps he couldn't, I suggested. In any case, I told him, the principle of the victim and the executioner didn't interest me. I didn't think either one of those roles suited me very well.

"No, no, I didn't mean that," he said. "I just wondered if that might shock you." He seemed a little disappointed. "You're more English than French, I think," he told me. "You've got the English kind of reserve."

After that his campaign slacked off. He was less friendly whenever I dropped in mornings, but since I hadn't encouraged his early approaches, I was clearly hesitant about attempting further advances. I was just as well pleased.

One morning toward the end of June, he told me he wanted to show me the view from the "forest." In French that word is used to refer to the framework of beams that come together to form the support for the roof. He took me into the hallway outside his painting studio on the upper floor. There, at an angle against the wall, was a miller's ladder leading up to a small door about three feet above our heads. He bowed gallantly. "You go first, he said. I had some qualms about it, but it seemed awkward to argue the point, so I climbed the ladder and he followed right behind. At the top I pushed open the door and stepped into a small room, about twelve feet by twenty, under the eaves. On the other side of the room was a small open window, almost to the floor. I walked over to it and looked out on a kind of Cubist pattern formed by the roofs and chimney pots of the Left Bank. Picasso came up behind me and put his arms around me. "I'd better hold onto you," he said. "I wouldn't like to have you fall out and give the house a bad name." It had grown warmer in the last few days, and he was wearing what seemed to be his usual warm-weather outfit for receiving his friends in the morning: a pair of white shorts and his slippers.

"That's nice, the roofs of Paris," he said. "One could make paintings of that." I continued to look out the window. Opposite us, a little to the right across a courtyard, an empty building was being remodeled. On one of the outside walls, a workman had drawn in whitewash an enormous phallus, about seven feet long, with very baroque subsidiary decoration. Picasso went on talking about the view and the handsome old roofs against light gray-blue of the sky. He moved his hands up and lightly cupped them over my breasts. I didn't move. Finally, a bit too innocently I thought, he said, "Tiens! That drawing in whitewash on the wall over there -- what do you suppose that represents?" Trying to sound as offhand as he had, I said I didn't know. It didn't seem to me to be at all figurative, I told him.

Return to Flashback: Portraits of Picasso.

Copyright © 1964 by Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake. All rights reserved.
Originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly, August 1964. Volume 214, no. 2 (pages 79 - 84).
Permission to post granted by Watkins/Loomis agency, 1996.
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