Portuguese-British artist Paula Rego, known for her uncompromising figurative work portraying the travails of women, died at her home in London June 8 at the age of eighty-seven, following a brief illness. The news was confirmed by London’s Victoria Miro gallery, which represents the artist. In the course of a career spanning eight decades, Rego interwove myths, fairy tales, and modern tropes to create works of deep emotional resonance and frequently devastating societal commentary. Her stark depictions of home abortions, showing women as participants in the painful process rather than as victims, played a key role in shifting public opinion toward supporting the Portuguese government’s 2007 referendum legalizing the procedure. Rego’s portrayals of the natural female body are some of the first to stand in contrast to the idealized versions depicted by male painters of previous centuries and frequently evoke a fierceness that renders ideas of subjugation ludicrous, as in her 1994 series “Dog Women,” whose subjects radiate aggression despite their unclad subservient poses.
Born in 1935 in Lisbon to an electrical engineer father and a homemaker mother who had trained as an artist, Rego at an early age was separated from her parents, who fled to England to escape the right-wing regime of António de Oliveira Salazar. Raised for a time by her grandmother in a largely female household, she began drawing at the age of four and by eight knew that she wanted to be an artist. Following a stint at boarding school in Kent, Rego attended London’s Slade School of Fine Art, where she studied under renowned portraitist Lucian Freud. While a student there, she met her future husband, Victor Willing. Married at the time, Willing forced Rego to have several abortions before she refused to have yet another and returned to Portugal pregnant with his child. Willing divorced his wife, followed Rego to Portugal, and married her in 1959. They returned to London and remained united until Willing’s death from multiple sclerosis in 1988, his passive mien and that of her father often reflected in her portrayals of men, as in the 1988 The Family, which shows a hapless man being efficiently dressed by a woman as two young girls look on.
Rego’s earliest works following her Slade education were strongly influenced by Surrealism and abstraction, as evidenced for example in the 1960 canvas Salazar Vomiting the Homeland, which harkens to early works by Picasso. Her return to Portugal sparked a desire in Rego to refute the then-popular forms and turn to figuration, which she embraced fully following a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and a subsequent turn to Jungian analysis. Working mainly in pastels and oils, she created works portraying women in circumstances common to their sex but often ignored in mainstream culture. In many of her canvases, she brought the female gaze to bear, with the subject squarely meeting the viewer’s eyes. Rego also subverted the trope of the reclining nude, bringing a new kind of sexual tension to it, as in the “Abortion” series of 1998–99, which features women in various states of undress sprawled on tables, couches, and floors, clearly in agony following a forbidden process necessitated by the act of sex. Among the subjects she addressed were aging, loneliness, female genital mutilation, and the rights afforded and denied working-class women.
Rego’s work is held in the collections of the British Museum, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and Tate, all in London; the Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven; and the Art Institute of Chicago, among other institutions. In 2009, a museum devoted to her work opened in Cascais, Portugal; the following year, she was named a Dame of the British Empire. She received the Portuguese government’s Medal of Cultural merit in 2019. A retrospective of her oeuvre closed at Tate in 2021; her work is currently on view at the Venice Biennale.