In 1946 the young French artist Françoise Gilot met Pablo Picasso, a relationship that lasted until 1954 and produced two children, Claude and Paloma. In their early days he took her to meet Henri Matisse at his studio in Vence on the Côte d’Azur. It was the start of an important friendship during which she would witness Matisse’s extraordinarily inventive process of making his cut-outs. Tate Etc. went to meet the artist in her studio in New York to talk about these formative years

Simon Grant
When did you first see Matisse’s work?

Françoise Gilot
I became interested in his art when I was about fifteen, and the first of his paintings that I saw was in Paris in 1937 at the exhibition Masters of Independent Art, a huge display that filled the entire Petit Palais with nearly 1,500 paintings and sculptures. There were many of his works there, showing alongside other contemporary painters, including Dufy and Picasso. That is when I started becoming interested in the art of the twentieth century. Until then my great love had been Egyptian art. I had been going to the Louvre once a week and loved it. And as well as French art from the Middle Ages, I liked the Quattrocento painters, as my parents had a house in Italy and we often went there.

Simon Grant 
What was it about Matisse’s work that impressed you?

Françoise Gilot 
It was his desire for finding the strongest and most simple way of expressing a form or a character. According to van Gogh, colour should be incandescent, more vivid than nature’s own harmony. In one of his letters he wrote: ‘Exaggerate the essential, leave the obvious vague.’ I think this is what Matisse was doing. He exaggerated his perceptions. In his art there was always a big contrast of black, white and then the strong colours that could be complementary… or not. Just as with the other Fauve painters, the work was shouting stronger than nature itself. Nature was not to be described; it was to be re-created over and over until the viewer could smell, feel, touch and be at one with the artist’s vision and feelings. I think it is worth remembering too that his work appeared about the same time as the birth of jazz, which is also characterised by contrasts.

Simon Grant 
Can you tell me about the first time you met him?

Françoise Gilot 
It was March 1946, and I was in the south of France working on some etchings. When Pablo came to meet me there, he said he was going to give me a present. He knew Matisse was my god, and that the present that would make me happy was to meet him. So it was arranged. At that time Matisse was living in a little villa called Le Rêve, in Vence on the Côte d’Azur. I remember very clearly that I dressed in almond green trousers and a mauve silk top, because I knew he liked those colours. The door was opened by his secretary, Lydia Delectorskaya. I had never seen her before, but she was immediately recognisable as the woman in his paintings. She took us inside, and to my utter surprise, everything was in darkness. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. This, I was not expecting from the painter of colour. After walking through several rooms in darkness, we came to a room where there was normal light, where we found Matisse sitting upright in his bed playing with a cat. Pablo introduced me as ‘a young painter’ (as our relationship was still a secret). Matisse immediately stated that he might very well make a portrait of me. (Picasso had not made a portrait of me by then.) He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He said: ‘I will do her hair in dark leaf green, and the body will be pale blue.’ I found it amusing, as you could quickly sense the competitiveness between the two men. Picasso was incensed as we left. He’d made only drawings of me and now announced he would paint me first, which became Woman Flower 1946 where, indeed, the hair is leaf green and the thin body is a vertical pale blue line.

People always think that there was great rivalry between them, but it was mostly a great friendship. Matisse was about twelve years older than Picasso and showed kindness towards him - because Picasso was always a bad boy, and Matisse was always soothing him. I think that their friendship was based on the semi-paternal attitude that Matisse had towards Picasso.

Simon Grant 
What were your immediate impressions of Matisse?

Françoise Gilot 
He was rather sturdy, even though he had been ill, but he had a very distinguished expression on his face. He had very blue eyes and a pale skin tone. When you saw him for the first time he looked more like a surgeon or physician than a painter, but when he became animated and spoke about art, it was really marvellous to listen to him.

Simon Grant 
And on one of your visits you witnessed him creating his cut-outs

Françoise Gilot 
Yes. He had a lot of papers that were already painted in one colour, and with his scissors he would cut them into the shapes and make something that was like a painting. It was marvellous to see what he called ‘carving in pure colour’. A whole world would emerge from his hands.

Simon Grant 
On one particular visit, in late 1947, he made an abstract portrait of you. Can you tell me about this?

Françoise Gilot 
When we arrived we found him armed with a huge pair of scissors, carving boldly into sheets of paper painted all kinds of bright colours. We went on chatting as the cut-outs went on dropping joyously over the bedspread. All of a sudden he retrieved a tiny black shape… He looked at it. ‘It’s a portrait in profile of Françoise with her long hair - a small kneeling figure. Now I see what I must do.’

He made a cut-out for me in different colours - it was a very bright green, with four little cut-outs in black and an aggressive red/purple shape in the centre. He got hold of a sheet of paper painted bright green and a piece of magenta paper, and considered the shocking clash of these two colours and sobering effect that would be achieved by the addition of the black shape. He nodded approvingly at his choice and began to cut a strong, intricate pattern in the glaring magenta paper, much larger than the kneeling figure. He then went back to chisel two black seaweed-like patterns. Using a tray in front of him, he began to set the cut-outs on the meadow-green rectangle. Soon the magenta form was established vertically in the centre and the tiny figure was firmly positioned towards the lower left corner. Several times he arranged, displaced and orientated the two seaweed pieces, one in the upper left corner and the other in the upper right, until he was finally satisfied. In the same spirit he cut a black form for the lower right corner, but when it was placed the whole composition looked too even, a bit dull. He removed that element immediately and with his gigantic scissors began to reduce it mercilessly, until it became quite small but sharp-edged. All the prettiness had been eliminated, but in the process of miniaturisation the energy had been maximised. We were spellbound, in a state of suspended breathing, knowing that Matisse was about to locate the remaining part. But he did not hesitate at all; he seemed driven. Slowly but with determination, his fingers brought down the chiselled, three-lobed form and applied it firmly to the lower right side. It was just perfect.

Simon Grant 
That is a wonderfully evocative insight into his working method. This was not the only artwork he made for you. He also sent you various letters…

Françoise Gilot 
Yes. He was very nice to me and would send me little illustrated letters. Each morning at home we had a ritual. Upon receiving the mail from the postman, I went to Pablo’s room to hand it to him. One day I recognised the famous handwriting on an envelope on top of the pile. It was addressed to me. Not expecting any more personal attention from the master in Vence, after the gift of the cut-out, I eagerly opened the envelope and beamed, unable to conceal my delight as I held another cut-out in my hands. What an enchanting surprise! It read: ‘Cheers for Sainte Françoise in nineteen hundred and forty-eight.’ Pablo grabbed the message and was really astonished. I think also that it was kind of a game that Matisse played with Picasso. He found that I was charming, but I would not have been that charming if I had not been living with Picasso.

I gave him a gouache of mine of Claude [Gilot and Picasso’s son] as a bird in flight, of which he made several playful interpretations. Matisse called all of my gouaches ‘birds’. He said to me: ‘When Françoise paints birds, however remote from reality they may be, they fly,’ which, of course, I found very flattering. He was especially fond of Claude. He used to call him ‘Little Hercules’, on account of his early ability to make fists of his hands, grind his new teeth and roll menacing eyes whenever requested by his father to look angry. Matisse loved it when we would bring him along. I remember once when Claude brought the mail from the mailbox, which was at the other end of the garden, and he was carrying a magazine with a purple and corn yellow cover. He immediately recognised it was by Matisse, which was incredible, because he was only three years old.

When a little older Claude used to say to his father: ‘You see, Matisse is a real painter because when you are in his home, you are inside one of his paintings, whereas with you, you take my toys and make sculptures out of them.’ He thought that his father was just enjoying himself, and not serious like Matisse.

Simon Grant 
You got to know Matisse fairly well over the years. Did he inspire your painting in any way?

Françoise Gilot 
I think that even if I had never met either Matisse or Picasso, they both would have influenced me. It is not because you know a painter that he or she influences you, it’s because you know their work. I think, on the contrary, once you know them, you are perhaps less influenced because you react with your own personality. You become interested in certain artists and understand what they were all about, and there’s a dialogue that can exist. That’s vital, because otherwise from one generation to the next there would not be any transmission of ideas unless you got to know them. For our generation, the work of Matisse and Picasso, as well as Georges Braque and Fernand Léger, was of great importance.

Françoise Gilot is an artist living in New York

Comments

I go to a woman's group called the LINK group which meets near where I live, my friend Norma has been to the Vence chapel and I used the Matisse designs on the windows as part of my Intergration project which I did at Cambridge Shcool of Art