Celebrated for his masterful four-volume biography of Picasso, the eminent British art historian, curator and critic Sir John Richardson has died at age 95. Life of Picasso Volume One was published in 1991; the fourth and final installment, which was close to completion, remains unpublished.
Massively detailed and detached while being compassionate and passionate, few literary biographies attain the level of grace and insight achieved by Richardson, whose Picasso was regarded almost as a work of art in itself. “The glorious mix of erudition and gossip that makes Richardson’s A Life of Picasso the greatest, most compelling biography of an artist ever written was facilitated by decades of conversations in the studio, written up afterwards in notebooks. Richardson’s insights, informed by both a connoisseur’s eye and Picasso’s own explanations, are pitch-perfect but determinedly non-academic,” wrote Jackie Wullschlager of the Financial Times in 2013. “This makes his biography, I suggest, important beyond Picasso studies, representing a bulwark against the increasing tyranny of theoretical approaches to the humanities.” Art critic Robert Hughes put it this way: “This is simply the best biography ever written of an artist, in the same class as Richard Ellmann on Joyce or Leon Edel on James.” Richardson’s work was awarded with a Whitbread prize in 1991. He was elected to the British Academy two years later, and was honoured with a knighthood in 2012.
The son of Sir Wodehouse Richardson, Sir John Richardson was born in London in 1924. He studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and then began writing for the New Statesman, Burlington Magazine, and other British journals. In 1950, he moved with the art collector and scholar Douglas Cooper into Cooper’s chateau in Provence; Picasso was a neighbor and frequent visitor. (The couple lived together for 12 years, after which Richardson moved to New York City; Richardson later chronicled their relationship in the 1999.memoir The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.)
In addition to his writings on Picasso, Mr. Richardson led a varied and multifaceted life. Sir Richardson was once described by W magazine as “the man all New York wants to sit beside at dinner”; his close friends included Andy Warhol, Georges Braque, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Jean Cocteau, W.H. Auden and Tennessee Williams. Famous for his storytelling, invited in the early 1960s to join Christie’s, where he remained until 1973; then vice-president of the New York dealer Knoedler until 1980; managing director of the art dealers’ consortium Artemis. He was also devoted to writing for numerous publications, including The New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and House and Garden, among others.
In 2008, he also began working as a consultant to über-dealer Gagosian, for whom he organized six Picasso exhibitions in New York and London including the blockbuster “Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors” in 2017; at his death, he was working on an exhibition of portraits by Warhol.