Artist in Focus: Paula Rego
Updated: Sep 15
Paula Rego has been making images out of made-up stories since she was a child, and this ‘narrative’ style has been a consistent thread throughout her astonishing, fertile and multi-faceted career to date: Paula Rego is a narrative artist, and one whose stories are not just reproduced from life as observed, but also from the ‘camera lucida’, the mind’s eye.
One could also add that Paula Rego has not lost in adulthood the energy of the child’s make believe world, as she says:
”It all comes out of my head, all little girls improvise, and it’s not just illustration: I make it my own”. 
In Paula Rego’s Jane Eyre illustrations, Rego was inspired by Jane Eyre’s own paintings, just as, in the novel, they interested Mr Rochester.
Charlotte Bronte and Paula Rego share an imaginative ardour that pierces the veil between fantasy and reality, as story tellers they are ‘kith and kin’. Rego reproduces the psychological drama of Jane Eyre through distortions in scale, cruel expressiveness of gesture and frown, and disturbingly stark contrasts in light and shade. 
Paula Rego was born in 1935, three years after Antonio De Oliveira Salazar became Prime Minister in Portugal. He was a self appointed dictator who would rule for the next four decades.
Consequently, Rego, developed early on a strong political consciousness and was aware of many forms of abuse. Salazar’ s enforced austerity led to famine, particularly in the countryside. Censorship and secret police quelled opposition, and dissidents were imprisoned and tortured. Violence against women was ubiquitous. 
So despite her well to do upbringing (her father owned an engineering factory in Lisbon), Paula Rego was not shielded from the poverty and puritanical rule around her as she grew up. Her parents travelled abroad and in these times Paula was left with an aunt or her grandparents. The latter she loved and enjoyed some freedom, but with her aunt life was gloomy.
She says of this time “The greatest problem all my life has been the inability to speak my mind, to speak the truth. Adults we’re always right, never answer back. To answer back felt like death, like being in a sudden huge void. I’ll never get Over this fear; so I‘ve hidden in childish guises, or female guises. Little girl, pretty girl, attractive woman. Therefore the flight into storytelling. Your paint to fight injustice.” 
Paula Rego was sent aged ten to St Julians near Estorick, an Anglican English School. This wise choice by her Anglophile father, meant that she would gain an English School Certificate and thus have the option of continuing her higher education in Britain. It was here that Rego had her first formal art tuition.
One of her teachers, Margaret Turnbull, was from the Bloomsbury school, and taught by setting up still life arrangements for her pupils to copy. These included toys and other props, not just fruit or bottles. Turnbull also had her pupils copy the works of Masters, including Degas; both practices that she continued into her career as an artist. Paula did well at art in school and often won prizes.
From 1952 to 56 Paula Rego went to the Slade School of Art, having also won a place a Chelse. Her contemporaries were Craigie Aichison, Michael Andrew, Euan Uglow And her future husband Victor Welling. At this time, Francis Bacon would provide a day’s teaching and through this Rego met art critic, David Sylvester, Bacon’s chronicler and later friend of Rego’s.
Sylvester said of Rego’s work at the time, “She is strange and individual, an authentic and courageous person who does not seem to mind to put down what she feels. Sometimes her work is odd: I would not expect it to be done by a beautiful, cosy looking and apparently well-adjusted girl“. Despite the dated chauvinism of the time this comment turned out to be quite prescient. 
The freedom, in terms of informal teaching, at the Slade allowed Paul Rego to continue with ‘pictures out of my head’. 
After the birth of her children and having seen, and been hugely influenced by an exhibition of works by Jean Dubuffet, father of the Art Brut movement, Paula Rego spent the late 50’s and early 60’s making paintings, collages and prints, which were quite expressive, violent, surreal works on subjects that included gluttony and politics.
See Paula Rego’s painting “Salazar Vomiting the Homeland”, a painting which could not be exhibited at the time it was created, but is included in the 2021 Paula Rego Retrospective at Tate Britain.
As with many other female artists, Rego found in collage a strategy to reclaim traditionally female materials and techniques, and use them to address socio-political concerns. 
In 1962 Paula Rego joined the London Group, whose exhibiting artists at the time also included Hockney, Auerbach and Michael Andrews. Then.
In 1965 Rego’s work was included in an avant Garde exhibition at the ICA, then at Dover Street. Roland Penrose, ICA founder and biographer of Picasso was impressed by Rego’s work and said the she was seemingly bursting with things to say and “this necessity overrides the restraints of calculated harmonies anmd gives refreshing exuberance and originality to her work.” 
But Rego’s ‘breakthrough’ exhibition was her first solo show, held in 1966 at the Galeria de Arte Moderna in the Sociedade National de Belas Artes in Lisbon. This exhibition made her famous overnight and the work stunned the Portuguese art world, described by painter Eduardo Batarda as having “an animal, vicious, formidable shock”.
Asked at the time why she paints, Rego’s answer was “To give terror a face”. 
After her father’s death, Rego’s work moved on through a series of poignant pen and ink drawings to 1975, when a grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation enabled her to take time off and research fairy tales. This research, mainly at the British Library, lead Paula Rego to concentrate on illustrating some of the best known Portuguese fairy tales. Similarly in a break from painting in the late 1980’s Rego illustrated some English nursery rhymes (in etching as well as painted works).
In 1981 Rego stopped making collages and started her ‘Red Monkey’ series of paintings in acrylic on paper. These were inspired by a story her husband, Victor Welling told her about a toy theatre he had as a child, which had only three characters: a monkey, a bear and a one-eared dog. In these works the monkey groves from being dominant to humiliated and the female figure, his wife, turns from victim to tyrant. Although, seemingly humorous, the Red Monkey works are quite dark, as with much of Rego’s oeuvre.
Moving on to larger sheets of paper gave Rego the chance to expand the stories, and so became the Opera works, exhibited in New York in 1983.
Works in the later 80’s would become less ‘busy’ and more realistic, but no less surreal in subject matter as evidenced by her ‘Girl and Dog’ paintings. Here the dog is clearly a metaphor for a man, being tended to, fed, petted and nursed variously by the girl. These works were exhibited in London in 1987 and provided Rego her first commercial success And lead to her being approached by the Marlborough Gallery.
Shortly after this, Rego painted one of her most important works, ‘The Maids’, described by Victor Welling as “Awkward natralism”.
The painting is inspired by the Jean Genet play, of the same name, in which the maids murder their mistress.
Rego’s husband, Victor Welling, died in 1988 and as with the death of her father, this was followed by a period of works reflecting on loss, impeding loss and farewells.
‘The Dance’ painting was started while Victor was still alive, and influenced by him suggesting she paint ”people dancing”. This was the first work by Rego purchased by Nicholas Serota for the Tate Gallery.
In 1990 Paula Rego was appointed the first Associate Artist of the at the National Gallery in London, with a studio on the premises and a stipend.the only requirement was for her to paint pictures directly related to works in the collection. These works are: ‘The Bullfighter’s Godmother’, ‘The Fitting’ and ‘Time - Past and Present’.
The Folio Society chose Paula Rego in 1992 to illustrate a new edition of Peter Pan. This was an inspired choice since the psychological complexities of J M Barrie’s book was perfectly suited to Rego’s expertise in exposing the truth behind familiar stories.
The 1994 Dog Woman series of pastel works originated from a Portugese fairy story written for her by a friend, who had heard it from her maid. The story recounts an old lady who lived alone with her pets in a rural setting; the story describes how the wind down the chimney encourages the old lady to eat her pets one by one.
For these works Paula Rego asked her model Lila Nunes to ”crouch down and be a woman with her mouth open as if she’s about to swallow something”. These pastel works on paper, influenced in style by Degas, were titled: “Dog Woman”; “Baying”; “Grooming”; “Waiting for Food”; “Sleeper”; “Scavengers”; “Watcher”; “Sit” and “Bad Dog”. 
Paula Rego wanted the figures to be animal in its powerful physicality, she said “To be a dog woman is not necessarily to be downtrodden; that has very little to do with it. In these pictures every womona is a dog woman, not downtrodden but powerful. To be bestial is good. It‘s physical. Eating, snarling, all activities to do with sensation are positive. To picture a woman as a dog is utterly believable“.
After the pastel series of works, Paul Rego had thought to also produce a series of etchings, But as she says “It didn’t work out at all. I would have done it already and that was it”. 
Wary, Dog Woman etching (see available works below) was published in 2020 from a plate drawn in 1994.
It should be noted that long before 1994 Paula Rego drew a Dog Woman in graphite in 1952 at the age of just seventeen.
Following the Dog Woman series, was the Pendle Witches in 1996 after poems by Blake Morrison, and perhaps further following Degas, Rego then produced The Ostriches (using Lila Nunes again as the model), inspired by the Dance of the Ostriches from Disney’s Fantasia, itself interpreting Dance of the Hours, from the opera La Gioconda By Amilcare Ponchielli. The eight Ostrich works become eight frames from an animated movie. Charles Saatchi purchased the whole series, for the Saatchi Collection ensuring that they would remain in the UK.
Continuing the Disney theme, which fascinated her as a child, and for the Spellbound exhibition, Rego did further pastels from Snow White and Pinnoichio. These additional works are more illustrations, albeit psychologically charged, from the animated movies in contrast to the Ostriches, which were interpretations.
As can be seen from the above, Rego has throughout her career been drawn to subjects that addrest the plight of women. Through her work she has, many times, denounced the control and abuse of women’s bodies: The 1998 Untitled pastels represent the aftermath of illegal abortions; the triptych ‘Human Cargo’ (2007-8) gives visibility to the the dehumanisation and trafficking of women and the etchings of 2009 address the aftermath of female genital mutilation. 
Alongside her original works in acrylic or pastel on paper Paula Rego has always produced etchings and lithographs. Some like ‘La Mano Muerta’ (see available works below) could not be editioned when created in 1962-4 due to the highly charged political subject matter portrayed, but were published over 50 years later in 2020! 
In addition Rego has a deep knowledge and love for the print medium, as well as its Masters: Some of her favourite etchings include the Minotaur series by Picasso, plus works by Goya, Hogarth and James Ensor. Rego looks for qualities in prints that she imbues in her own work: “A sensitive and expressive line that conveys complex feelings.” 
As noted by T G Rosenthal, it is often in her graphic work (editions) that Rego often goes beyond the hints and suppositions of her paintings and in ever more adventurous, sometimes hilarious, sometimes appalling concepts, turns the most innocent encounters and ideas into images of quite shocking impact. 
We at Zimmer Stewart have enjoyed preparing this Blog post, and hope that we have been able to impart the development and work of this important artist whose work can shock, amuse, but always with a sense of concern and importance in the subject being portrayed.
We have a number of editions by Paula Rego in our Editions Shop, and these are also shown below.
We can also access other works, so please do contact us to let us know if you are looking for a specific piece.
Marina Walker in the introduction to “Paula Rego, Jane Eyre, Enitharmon Editions, 2003
Paula Rego By John McEwan, published 1992 by Phaidon Press
Fantasy & Rebellion by Elena Crippa, from the Tate Britain, Paula Rego, 2021 Exhibition Catalogue.
A Life in Print by Sophie Lindo, foreword to Paula Rego: The Enduring Journey, 2021 Cristea Roberts Exhibition Catalogue.
Paula Rego: The Complete Graphic Work by T G Rosenthal, published in 2003 by Thames and Hudson
"La Mano Muerta", an unframed etching with aquatint. This print was published in 2020 from a plate originally drawn in 1962-4.
Due to its politically charged content, showing a decapitated Salazar, authoritarian Portuguese Prime Minister from 1932-68.
Edition of 17, signed and numbered by the artist, image 18 x 24 cm, paper 31 x 36 cm
Wary (Dog Woman), an unframed etching published in 2020 from a plate originally drawn in 1994.
The figure of the Dog Woman, crouched in rage and anguish appears as early as 1952, and then 42 years later, embodied by Nunes, posing on all fours.
In these pictures every woman’s a dog woman, not downtrodden but powerful”.
Edition of 50, signed and numbered by the artist. Paper size 35 x 42 cm
'O Vinho' , large format de luxe edition (100 copies) is accompanied by a signed and numbered colour lithograph (59.3 x 47 cm) by Paula Rego, printed at the Royal College of Art, London in 2007.
Paua Rego's O Vinho [Wine] is inspired by a short story by the Portuguese novelist João de Melo. In de Melo’s short story, wine is not a diversion but a re-engagement with life, an awakening that imparts a new freedom and a fresh intensity to the narrative voice. The text is accompanied by a sequence of nine images reproducing lithographs by Paula Rego, each one a story in itself, and all indicative of the transforming effects of ‘the colour, the soul, the profound essence of wine.’ Rego is also the translator of de Melo’s short story – his first to appear in English. This is the largest of the prints produced by Rego for her Enitharmon publications, and the first in colour. The lithograph and the accompanying text pages are housed in a sumptuous solander box, bound in wine-red Brillianta cloth at The Fine Book Bindery.