Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

1908–1992

Although Maria Helena Vieira da Silva was generally regarded as Portugal’s greatest contemporary artist, she spent six decades of her life in France, where she became a naturalized citizen in 1956.

Born in Lisbon, Vieira da Silva began studying drawing and painting at that city’s Academia das Belas Artes when she was only 11. At 16, she expanded her artistic interests to include the study of sculpture.

Three years later she moved to Paris. There, Vieira da Silva studied painting with Fernand Léger, sculpture with Antoine Bourdelle, and engraving with Stanley William Hayter, all renowned in their fields. She also created textile designs. In 1930, Vieira da Silva married the Hungarian painter Árpád Szenes. Aside from a brief sojourn back to Lisbon and a period spent in Brazil during World War II, Vieira da Silva continued to reside in Paris for the rest of her life.

By the late 1950s, Vieira da Silva had become internationally known for her dense and complex compositions, influenced by the art of Paul Cézanne and the fragmented forms, spatial ambiguities, and restricted palette of Cubism. She exhibited her work widely, winning a prize for painting at the Biennial in São Paolo in 1961.

Vieira da Silva was the first woman to receive the French Government’s Grand Prix Nationale des Arts in 1966. She was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1979. Marking Vieira da Silva’s 80th birthday in 1988, the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon and the Grand Palais in Paris presented a major retrospective of the artist’s work.  

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National Museum of Women in the Arts