French Connection

Francoise Gilot’s name might not ring a bell to San Diegans, but the 90-year-old artist, who lived in La Jolla from 1970 to 1995 and had a gallery in Sorrento Valley, has been the subject of many international exhibitions.

Despite being an accomplished artist, Gilot is best known for her 11-year live-in relationship with Pablo Picasso and her 25-year marriage to polio vaccine developer, Dr. Jonas Salk.

Vista-based art historian Mel Yoakum, the former director of Gilot’s archives for 25 years, says few people have sailed in the rarefied circle Gilot did.

“When Time magazine picked the most influential people of the 20th Century, Picasso and Salk were both on it,” Yoakum says. “She was the only person who had relationships with two people on the list, and she’s a great artist in her own right.”

Gilot met Picasso in 1943, when she was 23 and he was 63. They had two children together-fashion designer Paloma Picasso and her brother, Claude-but never married. Citing infidelity (chronicled in Gilot’s 1964 book, Life With Picasso), she left him in 1955.

“He really admired her as an artist,” Yoakum says. “Their art commented on each other. There was a dialogue between them.”

Gilot began a different kind of dialogue when she met Salk in La Jolla and bonded with him over a mutual love of architecture.

“She was a very scientific artist, and he was an artistic scientist, so there was overlap there,” Yoakum says.

Gilot spent much of the year in New York and Paris. Yoakum explains how life in San Diego also affected her work.

“Before she moved to La Jolla, she would place her paint thick on the canvas, but doing that in the California sun created shadows she thought weren’t attractive, so she decided to paint more smoothly,” he says. “Also, living near the ocean opened her up in terms of light, and many of her paintings in that period featured ocean-scapes and the influence of desert landscapes.”

Gilot’s most surprising influence, believe it or not, was the San Diego Chargers.

“She and Jonas (Salk) used to go to the games,” Yoakum says. “She loved the ballet of it all and she did a few abstract pieces of football players.”

After Salk’s death in 1995, Gilot moved away from La Jolla. Today she splits her time between New York and Paris.

Although the public knows her mostly as the woman who loved Picasso and Salk, Gilot sees it differently, as Larry King learned when he asked her what it was like to have had relationships with two of the greatest men of the last 100 years.

“She told him, ‘I’d like to think they had me,’” Yoakum says. “And then she added, ‘Lions mate with lions, not with mice.’”

-David Moye