Pablo Ruiz Picasso is perhaps the best-known artist of the 20th century. In his lifetime, he amassed a fortune and following that is rare for artists in their own lifetimes. He is best known as a co-founder of the Cubist art movement as well as for his painting Guernica, which is a surreal and dramatic portrayal of the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.
A lesser-known element of Picasso’s famous life is his treatment of women, which ranged from the typical misogyny of his era to downright cruel and manipulative. The wreckage of Picasso’s romances includes kidnapping a mistress and two suicides. Keep reading to learn fascinating yet daunting facts about the infamous painter’s interactions with women.
1. One of Picasso’s Lovers Left Him and Spoke Publicly About His Mistreatment
FranÃ§oise Gilot was the only Picasso’s lover to separate from him voluntarily. She famously said, of her reason for leaving Picasso, “I am not a submissive woman.” They were together for nine years, and she bore them two children.
She eventually wrote a book on their relationship. She said of Picasso,”[His] total absence of empathy and love; his lack of remorse and facile rationalizations for hurting others; a lust for seduction as a form of exercising power over women; duplicity and manipulation as a way of life; the pattern of idealize, devalue and discard in every romantic relationship he’s had; the underlying desire for control; an unshakable narcissism and the drive to do evil by damaging the lives of the women who became his partners.”
The passage paints a rather chilling depiction of the man, especially coming from a woman who lived with him for nine years. Gilot was not the only woman to publicly speak out about Picasso’s mistreatment. His own granddaughter would publicly decry his dehumanizing and misogynistic behavior towards his romantic partners. Gilot provided the most detailed historical record of Picasso’s relationship with women and cast a shadow on the artistic legacy of a man who so heavily featured his lovers in his work.
2. Picasso Stated Women Are Either “Goddesses or Doormats”
Picasso said to his former lover, FranÃ§oise Gilot, that women are “machines for suffering” and that he viewed them as either “goddesses or doormats.” The sentiment that women are machines for suffering is particularly sinister coming from an artist whose work frequently depicted the female form contorted into torturous representations of eyes, mouths, and genitals. One wonders how much of his cubist idealization of women was influenced by the profoundly troubling views he held towards the women in his life.
Given that Picasso thought women could only be doormats or goddesses, it is not shocking that Gilot left him and famously stated that their relationship fell apart because “I am not a submissive woman.” It would appear that Picasso could, in fact, not find any use for a woman who did not neatly fit into either of his preconceived categories.
The concept of women being either goddesses or doormats is similar to the virgin-whore dichotomy that still frequently accompanies depiction of women in popular culture. One need look no further than a modern horror flick to find a representation of the virtuous, worthy woman who abstains from sex and survives; compare her to the filthy, degenerate woman who pays the ultimate price for her perceived sexual crimes. Such binaries have burdened women for centuries and will likely continue to do so.
Lady Caroline Blackwood, the renowned author and English noble, visited Picasso in his studio in the 1950s. In this period, he was creating pin-up style art that featured an autobiographical portrait leering at young women. Upon reaching the top floor of the studio, he lunged at her.
She later reflected, “All I felt was fear. I kept saying, âGo down the stairs, go down.’ He said, âNo, no, we are together above the roofs of Paris.’ It was so absurd, and to me, Picasso was just as old as the hills, an old letch, genius or no.”
Lady Blackwood was a notoriously strong-willed woman with a dry wit who spoke directly. She added the ominous insight “And to think how many people he had up there.” It is no surprise that a wealthy, well-connected daughter of a Marquess and published author would feel comfortable both resisting Picasso’s advances and speaking of them publicly later, but it does cause one to wonder how many ingenues visited his studio wishing to see his art only to encounter similarly aggressive behavior.
Lady Blackwood, born Caroline Maureen Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood to the 4th Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, had a fascinating life. After an unhappy childhood, she married the painter Lucien Freud and was the model for his Girl in Bed. She also married the composer Israel Citkowitz. Her final marriage was to the poet Robert Lowell who described her as “a mermaid who dines upon the bones of her winded lovers,” not unlike some descriptions of Picasso himself.
4. Picasso Used a Prepubescent Girl as a Nude Model
Picasso drew numerous preparatory sketches for his famous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which features sex workers in various distorted erotic poses. Adult sex workers served as models for the finished version of the painting, which is widely acknowledged when the art is discussed. What is less known is that the preparatory sketches were completed using a naked young girl as a model. The illustrations feature a young girl, nearing puberty, depicted nude with her legs splayed open showing her genitals.
The young girl depicted was not named, but is believed to be a young girl Picasso and his partner at the time, Fernande Olivier, adopted from a nearby convent in 1907. It is unknown why the couple took the child, as she was reportedly returned to the convent sometime after the sketches were complete in the same year she had been adopted.
On a sad note, at least one biographer noted that Picasso took more than a passing interest in young girls. “Young girls excited Picasso,” wrote John Richardson, a noted Picasso biographer. While there is no proof Picasso engaged in inappropriate behavior towards children, beyond the sketches for Demoiselles, it is undoubtedly a troubling statement regarding a man who held so many other problematic views towards females.
5. Picasso Gave Golden Phalluses to Prospective Lovers
Pablo Ruiz Picasso may be most famous for his Cubist paintings, but his romantic overtures are worth noting as well. Picasso saw many women throughout his long life of 91 years, and he continued courting women right up until the end. While in his 70s and 80s, Picasso adopted the habit of sculpting tokens of affection for women with whom he wished to become intimate. The little statuettes were gold and featured noticeably oversized phalluses.
Picasso crafted these figures in the home he shared with his second wife, Jacqueline Roque, with whom he stayed married until his death in 1973. He would also sometimes even hand out these figures, which were very clearly a calling card for a tryst, right in front of his wife. It is said that the women who received these figures in front of Jacqueline were never allowed back inside their home again.
While this may seem like a funny or quirky way to show interest, some of Picasso’s ways of showing interest earlier in his life were far more troubling. Locking a woman up, kidnapping another and driving multiple women to suicide would all be part of the tapestry of Picasso’s loves throughout his life.
Picasso was apparently a fan of May-December romances, as many of his lovers were much younger than him. However, there was perhaps no greater age gap than that between Picasso and his second, and final, wife Jacqueline Roque. He was 79 when he married the young divorcee of only 27 years. They married in 1961. Roque is said to have served as his greatest muse, with Picasso producing more art during their marriage than at any other point.
Roque dedicated her life to being Picasso’s muse and was jealous and possessive of his time and affection. Picasso continued to take other lovers and mistresses, but she would not allow any to enter her home once that relationship became clear. His last wife was very cold to Picasso’s children from his previous marriage. She banned both of his children from his first marriage from attending his funeral.
Roque also turned away Picasso’s grandchildren connected to his first marriage, including his grandson Pablito who took his own life shortly after his stepgrandmother’s rejection. Roque was the last in a long line of women who seemed to bleed themselves dry by catering to Picasso. Roque herself died by suicide 13 years after Picasso’s death.
7. Picasso Locked a Woman In His Apartment Over Jealousy
One of Picasso’s early lovers, before he married, was the bohemian artist Fernande Olivier. They moved in together in 1905. Picasso immediately demanded that she stop modeling for other artists. She had been posing for a sculpture by Francois Sicard that required future settings, and Picasso attempted to forbid her from going. He even went so far as to lock her in their apartment to physically stop her from modeling for Sicard.
Once Picasso established control over Olivier, she modeled exclusively for him. She was the muse and model for the early Cubist sculpture Head of Fernande. She also inspired a great deal of the artwork from his Rose Period, which heavily featured the colors red and orange alongside circus and harlequin imagery. The Rose Period was also when Picasso acquired his most influential patron in Gertrude Stein.
Olivier and Picasso’s relationship lasted for several years. Picasso continued to be jealous during their entire relationship, taking to locking her in their apartment more frequently so that she could not go out in public without him, which today would be considered domestic abuse. Their relationship ended when Olivier fell sick, and he began seeking other women. Despite his treatment, they remained friends.
Lagut and Picasso had a rocky on-and-off-again relationship, presumably due at least in part to the kidnapping and captivity, but they ultimately decided to marry at the end of 1916. However, Lagut changed her mind at the last minute and fled to Paris to reconcile with a former lover, an unnamed woman. A 1990s biographer, John Richardson, attempted to use the evidence of Lagut returning to her former lover as evidence that Lagut was “basically a lesbian” in his biography of Picasso which tried to clear his name of the various charges of misogyny and infidelity leveled against it.
Picasso and Lagut did reconcile at least once in the 1920s, which led to the creation of one of Picasso’s more famous works The Lovers. The painting features a man and woman standing together, and letters unearthed later in the 20th century indicated the picture was based on Lagut and Picasso.
9. Picasso, like many other men of the time, frequented sex workers and shocked the world with paintings of their intimate time together.
Early 20th century Spain had a very different culture than the modern United States when it comes to prostitution and brothels. It was not at all uncommon for men to go to church Sunday morning, visit the brothels in the afternoon, and meet up for drinks in the evening to discuss religion, politics, and their experiences at the brothels earlier that day. Brothels and sex work just didn’t have the taboo than that they do now.
Picasso was introduced to brothel culture early in life by a father who was renowned to frequent brothels quite frequently. His father, who was also an artist, would spend a significant number of his evenings at brothels while his mother and sisters raised Picasso. Picasso himself lost his virginity to a sex worker at the age of 13 or 14.
Picasso’s familiarity with, and interest in, sex workers were put on display for the world to see in 1907 when he introduced the cubist painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which featured Parisian sex workers in various stances. It caused a minor uproar upon its revelation, due to both the subject matter and the African imagery and style infused into the more traditional Picasso-style cubism.
10. Picasso’s granddaughter described him in an unforgiving way, hinting that years of abuse may have led two lovers to crippling depression.
Picasso’s own granddaughter, Marina Picasso, unflinchingly described the brutal nature of her grandfather’s relationships with women when she said, “He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.”
Picasso displayed a trend throughout his life towards his intimate partners: the moment they became ill or ceased to inspire his creativity he lost interest and moved on. After Fernande Olivier became sick, he left her. As his first wife’s, Olga Khokhlova, mental illness became worse the painter took more lovers on the side and redoubled his efforts to divorce her. When Eva Gouel also fell ill, he again took on a new lover and neglected her.
Only one woman in Picasso’s entire life was documented to have left him. All the others were either abandoned or had to share his attention with other women. Many of the women served to inspire and fuel a unique period of his art, such as the Rose or Blue period and were cast aside as soon as the interest in both them and the art they inspired waned.
Khokhlova eventually found out about Walter, and the couple split but remained married. Khokhlova was socially ambitious and wanted to work on “taming” Picasso into a suitable husband. Due to the obsessive nature of Picasso’s relationship with Walter, Khokhlova eventually moved to the south of France with their son but continued to be fixated on Picasso.
Khokhlova continued to send Picasso hate mail, even after their separation. When their son, Paulo, became Picasso’s chauffeur she began living out of a suitcase and following the two around Europe. Many of Picasso’s friends considered her “mad” due to her behavior. She asked to see her husband later in life as she was nearing her death, which he refused. She died in 1955.
After Picasso left Fernande Olivier due to her illness, he began seeing a friend of hers, Eve Gouel. Gouel was also known as Marcelle Humbert. After the two started a relationship, they left Paris to avoid running in the same artistic circle as Olivier. Gouel is the least known of all Picasso’s numerous lovers. Little is known about her personality, history or relationship with Picasso. He never painted her, unlike his other partners, and she appears only in a couple of photographs.
Gouel had some talent as a businesswoman and helped market and sell Picasso’s works. However, she was always quite frail and sickly. It is believed now that she was either suffering from tuberculosis or some form of cancer, as she had a wasting illness. In 1915, her illness reached the point where she needed to be hospitalized. However, instead of supporting his seriously ill paramour, Picasso took another lover.
While Goule was still in the hospital, Picasso began an affair with his neighbor, Gaby Lespinasse. Picasso’s concern throughout the period of Eve’s illness was chiefly himself, with him describing his life with Gouel as “hell” in a letter to a friend and patron. Eve died from her disease in Paris on December 14th, 1915.
Picasso quickly became obsessed with Walter and hid her away from a secret apartment and told no one about their relationship. She became one of his great muses, inspiring many of his paintings. It is believed his wife may have become aware of Walter by finding one of his numerous sketches and portraits of her.
In 1935, while Picasso’s first wife was struggling with unknown “gynecological troubles” and having surgery, Walter became pregnant with Picasso’s child. They had a daughter named Maya the same year. Soon after, Picasso met the surrealist painter Dora Maar. When the two women met and demanded he pick between them, he encouraged them to fight over him physically and remarked later that it was one of his favorite memories. Picasso continued to support Walter and their daughter after they moved away from him. Walter committed suicide after Picasso’s death.
However, despite the seemingly natural pairing of two troubled artists, Picasso turned his attention to another woman after spending almost a decade with Maar. This time, it was a woman 40 years Picasso’s junior and 20 years younger than Maar: the young artist FranÃ§oise Gilot. Picasso left Maar for Gilot in 1946, after which Maar fell into a deep depression.
Maar eventually suffered what was known at the time as a nervous breakdown. Her depression and reclusiveness became so severe that she sought out psychiatric help. She was subjected to electroshock therapy which was, at the time, a conventional treatment for severe depression and other mental illnesses (and sadly often for homosexuality). After her medicine, she became a devout Catholic and was described as nun-like in her chastity and behavior.
Picasso managed to hide the existence of Walter from his wife and even from his closest friends for many years. While many of his friends knew that he had a mistress who was also serving as an artistic muse, they didn’t know her name or even her appearance beyond what they saw in sketches and portraits. Picasso reportedly did not find the athletic and unassuming Walter intellectually stimulating, so perhaps this partly explains why he seemed to make no effort to introduce her into his artistic circles as he did with so many of his later mistresses.
Ultimately, Walter was hidden away from both the art world and Picasso’s personal world for almost a decade. In that time, she inspired numerous paintings, sketches, and etchings. Walter gave birth to their daughter, Maya in 1935. Picasso’s first wife learned that Picasso had a pregnant mistress earlier that year and moved with their son. Picasso left Walter shortly after the birth of their daughter in favor of a new and younger mistress. Walter’s life tragically ended in suicide four years after Picasso’s death in 1973.
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