“Hello, who is there?” an elderly woman inquired with a thick French-English accent.
“This is James,” replied a man in a quiet voice.
This simple exchange around seven years ago sparked a friendship between James Watson of Dollarway and one of the world’s most famous female artists, Francoise Gilot. It also opened the door for him into the exclusive world of Pablo Picasso’s life and legacy.
“I just took a chance, and ever since that first call we have become good friends,” said Watson, who has spent decades researching the famous Spanish artist Picasso’s life.
Over the years, Watson has amassed thousands of pieces of art from artists all over the globe, and he even dabbles in painting himself. But he has always had a fascination with Gilot and her former lover, Picasso.
At 21, Gilot met Picasso, then 61. He first saw Gilot in a restaurant in the spring of 1943.
After Picasso's and Gilot's meeting, she moved in with him in 1946. They spent almost 10 years together, and those years revolved around art. He painted La femme-fleur, and then his old friend Matisse, who liked Gilot, announced that he would create a portrait of her in which her body would be pale blue and her hair leaf green.
Picasso and Gilot never married, but they did have two children together. Their son, Claude, was born in 1947, and their daughter, Paloma, was born in 1949.
Eleven years after their separation in 1964, Gilot wrote Life with Picasso (with the art critic Carlton Lake), a book that sold over one million copies in dozens of languages.
Today, Gilot lives in New York City, and her art is some of the most sought-after in the world. While Watson doesn’t own a Gilot painting, he did receive a signed art book from her in the mail one day in March.
“I bought the book and sent it to her to autograph, and she did,” Watson said. “And I call to check on her every few weeks. She is always kind and takes time to speak if she is available to. She is not in the best of health.”
Watson also befriended another giant in the art world, Picasso biographer John Richardson, who recently died.
The British-born art historian and curator devoted more than a quarter century to writing a monumental four-volume biography of Picasso. He and Watson spoke many times over the phone, and Richardson even sent him two signed books about Picasso’s life.
Watson has been invited by Gilot to New York City, although a health condition prevents him from flying.
“I might decide to drive there one day,” Watson said. “And Ms. Gilot told me that if she were able to, she would come here to Pine Bluff.”
Watson said he isn’t ready to make any announcements yet, but the conversations he has had with Gilot and the late Richardson were about a specific work that, when revealed, “will shake the art world.”
“It’s really an important work, it’s been authenticated,” he said.
The only teaser Watson would reveal is that the work is connected to the Cold War and is a sketching of a world leader from that time. For now, Watson said he plans to continue calling to check on Gilot every few weeks, and he hopes that one day he can meet her in person.
“She is very nice, and she is one of the most important living artists,” Watson said. “I consider her a good friend.”
He also expressed sadness at Richardson’s death.
“I miss talking to John, I really do,” Watson said. “He was so knowledgeable and helpful. The art world lost a giant.”