Photos: Francoise Gilot at 100: La Jolla event salutes painter, former resident and ‘Woman of the Century’

Former La Jollan Francoise Gilot is still painting at age 100.
(Aurelia Engel)

At 100 years old, prolific painter and former La Jolla resident Francoise Gilot is still taking the risks that marked her career.

Gilot’s contributions to the art world were celebrated at a private exhibit of her art at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla on April 24 as Gilot, who was unable to travel from her home in New York, was named “Woman of the Century” by the nonprofit Charter 100 International.

The exhibit, called “Gilot 100,” was presented by Gilot’s daughter Aurelia Engel and her husband, Colas Engel, along with Diana Pickett and Cynthia Burleson. The Woman of the Century award remained in its box; Gilot will receive it soon.

Aurelia Engel is the director of the Francoise Gilot Archives, which is responsible for maintaining and authenticating Gilot’s massive body of work, running Gilot’s galleries and directing exhibitions at other galleries.

Gilot has lived in New York since she left La Jolla in 1995 after the death of her second husband, famed scientist Jonas Salk.

When Gilot arrived in La Jolla in 1969 and met Salk (the two were married in 1970), “it was a very different town,” Engel said.

Engel, then about 13, would vacation with her mother in La Jolla and attended The Bishop’s School from 1972 to 1974.

With already nearly four decades as a painter behind her, Gilot’s paintings took on flat planes of color in La Jolla, Engel said, influenced by the starker contrasts in colors she found along the coast.

“When she moved to California, her style completely changed,” Engel said.

Gilot answered questions from the La Jolla Light through Engel. When asked what she liked about painting in La Jolla, Gilot said, “I felt free from tradition.”

Francoise Gilot's "Streams of Gravitation" (2005) is pictured with her daughter Aurelia Engel and Engel's husband, Colas.
“Streams of Gravitation” (2005) by Francoise Gilot displays the flat planes of bold colors influenced by her time in La Jolla, according to her daughter Aurelia Engel, pictured with her husband, Colas Engel.
(Diana Pickett)

Gilot, born Nov. 26, 1921, grew up in Paris and London and began studying art as a young child; she decided to be a painter at age 5.

Gilot said her first memories — her crib, wallpaper and illustrations in books — influenced her wanting to create art.

“By the time she was 13, she was already an artist,” Engel said. She was a professional by 19.

Engel said her mother was successful early in life because Gilot’s parents “pushed her to be modern and pushed her to be herself very early on.”

Gilot met legendary artist Pablo Picasso when she was 21 and spent more than a decade with him. They raised two children together until they split in 1953.

She then married artist Luc Simon, Engel’s father, in 1955. The two divorced in 1962.

Gilot began visiting the United States in 1968, Engel said, and exhibited in Pennsylvania and lectured in Michigan, establishing her name as an artist in those states.

In the late 1960s, a friend told Gilot that she would marry again. Gilot replied: “I want to dedicate myself to painting. I am not getting married again.”

The friend insisted that Gilot would meet someone on a cliff above the ocean. When Gilot flew to Los Angeles for another friend’s art show in 1969 and was told she needed to meet Salk — who in the 1950s developed the first successful polio vaccine — Gilot at first refused because of La Jolla’s proximity to the ocean.

Gilot acquiesced but sat at Salk’s table uncharacteristically silent, Engel said, piquing Salk’s curiosity about the absence of her purported exuberance.

“He invited her to look at the sunset at the Salk Institute,” Engel said. “They were married six months later.”

Gilot split her time between Paris and La Jolla until Salk died.

Now past her 100th birthday, Gilot still paints. “That’s who she is,” Engel said.

Her legacy, her daughter said, will be “taking risks. She never plays it safe.”

When Gilot was a child, her mother “forbade her to use an eraser,” Engel said. “She said: ‘You have to move forward. There is no mistake in art. Whether it’s a success or not doesn’t matter because what is important is a path that you’re taking toward something new.’”

Gilot said she advises younger artists to “be yourself; don’t listen to critics or anyone else.”