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John Richardson, art connoisseur and biographer of Picasso, dies at 95

An undated photo of Pablo Picasso and his friend John Richardson. Mr. Richardson was working on the final installment of an acclaimed four-volume biography, “A Life of Picasso.” (Jacqueline Picasso/Knopf)

John Richardson, a British historian who spent more than three decades working on an intimate four-volume biography of Pablo Picasso, one of his many painter-friends in a life devoted to art, died March 12 at his home in Manhattan. He was 95.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said Nicholas Latimer, director of publicity for Mr. Richardson’s publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.

Mr. Richardson began writing “A Life of Picasso” in the early 1980s, expecting to finish in just one book. Three volumes and more than 1,600 pages later, he had worked his way from Picasso’s birth in 1881 to the huge Paris and Zurich retrospectives organized for the artist in 1932.

A publication date for Volume 4, which is slated to conclude with Picasso’s death in 1973, has not been set. But by near-unanimous critical agreement, the completed books constitute a masterpiece of historical narrative and art criticism, worthy of a protean painter, sculptor, printmaker and ceramist who often compared himself to God.

“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,” art critic Robert Hughes told the New York Times in 1996.

Reviewing Volume 3 for the Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote that Mr. Richardson “leaves us not only with a deep appreciation of Picasso’s Promethean ambition and prodigious fecundity but also with a shrewd understanding of his tumultuous, subversive and often disturbing art.”

Bullish and handsome, Mr. Richardson was far more than a scholar. He worked as an industrial designer, art critic, gallery executive and auction house chief; wrote for publications including the New Yorker, New York Review of Books and Vanity Fair; and befriended a staggering array of artists, including painters Francis Bacon, Georges Braque, Fernand ­Léger, Nicolas de Staël and Jean Cocteau, composer Benjamin Britten and poet W.H. Auden.

Mr. Richardson once allowed reclusive actress Greta Garbo to spend a month at his London apartment, where she used the alias Ms. Brown and “even the maid, who was a movie buff, never knew it was her.” He played the brother of model Maxime de la Falaise in a film directed by Andy Warhol, and posed for portraits by David Hockney and Lucian Freud.

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For most of the 1950s, Mr. Richardson lived in the South of France with Douglas Cooper, an art historian and collector whom Mr. Richardson described as “a devil with an angelic streak, and the devil always won.” Together they turned the dilapidated Chateau de Castille into a private art museum and lunched with Picasso, who lived nearby in the hills of Vallauris and was frequently accompanied by his mistress and future wife, Jacqueline Roque.

“Jacqueline and I were about 28, and everyone else was much older,” Mr. Richardson told the Guardian in 2010. “We were like the kids among grown-ups and so got on very well.” Picasso, he added, was alternately warm and tyrannical, someone who needed love “like a vampire needs blood.”

Mr. Richardson eventually tired of Provence and moved to New York in 1960. He organized major exhibitions of Picasso and Braque; opened a Manhattan office for Christie’s, the British auction house; presided over 19th- and 20th-century paintings at the storied gallery Knoedler and Co.; and was managing director of Artemis, a consortium of art dealers, before turning to writing full time in the late 1970s.

He had considered writing a Picasso biography since the ’50s, he said, inspired by a comment from photographer Dora Maar, the artist’s mistress: “When the woman in Picasso’s life changed, everything else would change.”

“A Life of Picasso: Volume 1” is a portrait of the artist as a young monster

Published in 1991, Volume 1 (“The Prodigy, 1881-1906”) received a Whitbread Award for book of the year. It chronicled Picasso’s childhood in Spain, shattering the myth that the artist’s early success resulted from natural talent rather than hard work, and followed him to Paris, where he lived in a run-down apartment building known as the Bateau-Lavoir.

“The place was so jerry-built that the walls oozed moisture — glacial in winter and a Turkish bath in summer — hence a prevailing smell of mildew, as well as cat piss and drains,” Mr. Richardson wrote.

While the book was met with popular acclaim, Mr. Richardson said he was forced to sell gifts from Picasso, including drawings and prints, to support his research and writing. He published Volume 2 (“The Cubist Rebel, 1907-1916”) in 1996 and Volume 3 (“The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932”) in 2007.

As the years ticked away and his sight deteriorated, he began relying on assistants to read documents for him. But he said he remained close to finishing Volume 4, and undiminished in his appreciation for Picasso.

“I’m still amazed that any human being can have so many characteristics that are the opposite of each other,” he told ARTnews in 2012. “The diversity: extreme loyalty, extreme disloyalty; extreme kindness, extreme cruelty; extreme generosity, extreme stinginess, but only when his family was concerned.”

“Many people who have such diversity of characteristics wind up in a loony bin,” he added. “Picasso ended up a genius.”

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The oldest of three children, John Patrick Richardson was born in London on Feb. 6, 1924. His mother was a homemaker, and his father, Wodehouse Richardson, served as a quartermaster general during the Boer War, co-founded the Army & Navy department store chain and was knighted by King Edward VII.

The elder Richardson died at 75, when John was 5; his mother told him Wodehouse had simply “gone off to South Africa to visit old battlefields.” Mr. Richardson went on to study at the Stowe boarding school, where he began to make paintings of his own.

“It did not take me long to realize that I would never be much good — better write about painting than actually do it,” he wrote in a 1999 memoir, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

Mr. Richardson studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, part of University College London, and served briefly in the British army before being “invalidated” because of rheumatic fever.

He was writing for the New Statesman when he met Cooper at a party for author Paul Bowles. When Mr. Richardson asked to see his art collection, Cooper replied, “There is no time like the present. Let’s leave these ghastly people and this ghastly party.”

Mr. Richardson was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2012. Survivors include a brother.

In recent years he wrote essays about his friends and artist acquaintances, many of them collected in “Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters” (2001). Still, he remained focused on the painter who had become his obsession.

“I wouldn’t want to write about any other artist after Picasso,” he told the Times in 1991. “I don’t think I could. Picasso was a bit of a cannibal. He had a way of consuming people. I think by the time I’ve finished this biography, I shall be totally consumed.”

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