Paula Rego, the internationally celebrated Portuguese-born British artist known for her visceral and unsettling work, has died age 87.
The Victoria Miro gallery announced Rego’s death on Wednesday, saying: “She died peacefully this morning, after a short illness, at home in north London, surrounded by her family. Our heartfelt thoughts are with them.”
The painter, who recently had a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Britain, rose to prominence after exhibiting with the London Group in the 1960s alongside David Hockney. In the years following she spent her career focusing on women’s rights, and abortion in particular.
Having grown up in a privileged family in Portugal under Salazar’s fascist dictatorship, Rego was fascinated by fairytales and her political paintings span themes of power, possession, childhood and sexual transgression.
In an interview with the Guardian in 2019, Rego, who had previously spoken about her own abortions, said that “making abortions illegal is forcing women to the backstreet solution”.
She added: “I’m doing what I can with my work but both men and women need to stand up to this. It affects men, too. You don’t get pregnant on your own, do you?”
Rego was born in Lisbon in 1935, to a father who worked as an electronics engineer, and a mother who studied art but never practised as an artist.
Known primarily for her paintings, pastel drawing and prints Rego became the first associate artist in the National Gallery which solidified her place as one of Britain’s greatest living painters and figurative artists worldwide.
Her work is valued in the millions, a film has been made about her, and a gallery named House of Stories: Paula Rego, in a coastal town of Cascais outside of Lisbon, is one of the very few dedicated to a living artist. But it was not until 1987 that Rego had her first major exhibition in Britain.
Having studied at the Slade School of Fine Art at 17 under Lucian Freud, Rego met artist Victor Willing who later became her husband. In 1966, Willing was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and died in 1988. A year later, Rego was shortlisted for the Turner prize.
Remembering her late husband, Rego previously told the Guardian: “Grief is always there, it doesn’t get easier. I thought about falling in love again many times, but that’s nobody’s business.”
She is survived by three children, whom they raised in Ericeira and, later, in London.