As I have become obsessed with the owls that live outside our house, watching them, photographing them, drawing them, I’ve been delighted to discover the story of Pablo Picasso’s owl, as told in Françoise Gilot’s wonderful memoir, Life With Picasso:
Pablo loved to surround himself with birds and animals. In general they were exempt from the suspicion with which he regarded his other friends. While Pablo was still working at the Musée d’Antibes, [Michel] Sima had come to us one day with a little owl he had found in a corner of the museum. One of his claws had been injured. We bandaged it and gradually it healed. We bought a cage for him and when we returned to Paris we brought him back with us and put him in the kitchen with the canaries, the pigeons, and the turtledoves.
She describes the owl’s behavior:
We were very nice to him but he only glared at us. Any time we went into the kitchen, the canaries chirped, the pigeons cooed and the turtledoves laughed but the owl remained stolidly silent or, at best, snorted. He smelled awful and ate nothing but mice. Since Pablo’s atelier was overrun with them, I set several traps. Whenever I caught one, I brought it to the owl. As long as I was in the kitchen he ignored the mouse and me. He saw perfectly well in the daytime, of course, in spite of the popular legend about owls, but he apparently preferred to remain aloof. As soon as I left the kitchen, even if only for a minute, the mouse disappeared. The only trace would be a little ball of hair which the owl would regurgitate
Françoise Gilot telling the story of the owl she rescued with Picasso
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) March 5, 2021
She then describes Picasso’s weird friendship with the owl:
Every time the owl snorted at Pablo he would shout, “Cochon, Merde,” and a few other obscenities, just to show the owl that he was even worse mannered than he was. He used to stick his fingers between the bars of the cage and the owl would bite him, but Pablo’s fingers, though small, were tough and the owl didn’t hurt him. Finally the owl would let him scratch his head and gradually he came to perch on his finger instead of biting it, but even so, he still looked very unhappy. Pablo did a number of drawings and paintings of him and several lithographs as well.
I love the paintings, but also the sculptures:
And these plates:
I should also note that Gilot herself has painted owls:
And that she is still alive and painting! Here is an interview from 2019 in which she talks about the memoir.
In another photograph by Michel Sima (he published a book, Picasso à Antibes, in 1948), you can see one of the owl paintings in the background:
Sima himself is an interesting character: when he met Picasso, he had only recently returned from the death camps, and was recovering from poor health. Picasso convinced him to take up photography. You can learn more about their friendship in Gilot’s memoir and the documentary, Picasso and Sima, Antibes, 1946:
PS. Here’s Picasso’s self-portrait as an owl: