Portuguese artist Paula Rego tells spellbinding stories of love, betrayal, and revenge. She elevates traditional narrative painting by rendering bold figures in mysterious settings, creating images that are evocative and alluring. Paintings, pastels, prints and drawings make up the wide range of Rego’s oeuvre. She embraces figurative art as a means of asserting allegorical imagery that challenges the viewer.
Rego’s art is rooted in dark fantasies, literature, fairy tales, art history, and personal memories. She was born in Lisbon, Portugal to an affluent family, but her fragile health as a child prompted the family to move to the seaside resort town of Estoril. As an only child, Rego spent much of her time drawing, poring over picture books, and listening to relatives tell stories. She also loved attending the cinema with her grandmother to see Walt Disney films such as Snow White
(1937) and Pinocchio
(1940), which both delighted and frightened her.
After attending a finishing school in London, Rego enrolled in the city’s prestigious Slade School of Art. Life Painting
, 1954, a work from those student days, depicts a fleshy, red-haired model gazing into the distance. The brushwork in this painting is sensitive and precise, but the dark outlines that Rego used to shape the model’s face and body (which would become a hallmark of her mature style) add a slightly eerie quality to the image.
Following her graduation from the Slade, Rego lived and worked in both Portugal and England, where she met British artist and fellow Slade student Victor Willing, whom she married in 1959. She was strongly influenced during that period by Surrealism and French artist Jean Dubuffet’s promotion of “Art Brut,” inspiring Rego to abandon easel-based painting.
Rego’s work often broaches disconcerting subjects and challenges us to think about uncomfortable issues, a propensity that may stem in part from Rego’s Portuguese culture. The artist acknowledges that the country’s folklore and literature are distinguished by dark humor and a provocative outlook. Rego does not intend for her works to have a fixed meaning. She adds or omits details to encourage multiple readings, and her own interpretation of her works sometimes changes over time. While Rego’s art is almost always inspired by personal experiences or those of people she knows, once she has begun a work, specific references no longer interest her. Rather, she seeks to make her art universally expressive.
After her husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1969, Rego shifted her focus from parables to scenes of the domestic sphere, which had become the central space of her daily life. Paintings such as The Policeman’s Daughter
and The Maids
, both 1987, and The Family
, 1988, show women caring for and/or battling with men and with one another. The compressed, stagelike settings in these paintings and the figures’ enigmatic poses allude to the high drama and simmering resentment that often shapes home life.
Since the 1970s, Rego has lived and worked in London, where the famed Saatchi Gallery owns a deep collection of her works and the National Gallery commissioned her to create a mural, Crivelli’s Garden
, for the opening of its Sainsbury Wing in 1991. Rego is one of the leading figurative artists on the international scene and has been the subject of major exhibitions at the Tate in London. Among her awards, she is the recipient of several honorary doctorates.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts is the first U.S. museum to present a retrospective of her work.
The Slade School of Fine Art, London, United Kingdom – England (1952-1956)
wife of Victor Willing
influenced by Jean DuBuffet
student of Margaret Turnbull
friend of Maria Ines Ribeiro da Fonseca (known as Menez)
Honorary Master of Art, Winchester School of Art, Winchester, United Kingdom – England (1992)
Associate Artist, National Gallery, London, United Kingdom – England (1990)