Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, she was raised in Trieste, Italy. She moved to Milan at the age of 17, and then to Paris, in either 1931 or 1932. There, she became acquainted with, among many others, Paul Éluard, Max Ernst, Georges Bataille, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Picasso, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, and Salvador Dalí. She traveled Europe by car with Mandiargues and Cartier-Bresson where she was photographed nude in a swimming pool by Cartier-Bresson. The photograph of Fini sold in 2007 for $305,000 – the highest price paid at auction for one of his works to that date.
She painted portraits of Jean Genet, Anna Magnani, Jacques Audiberti, Alida Valli, Jean Schlumberger (jewelry designer) and Suzanne Flon as well as many other celebrities and wealthy visitors to Paris. While working for Elsa Schiaparelli she designed the flacon for the perfume, “Shocking”, which became the top selling perfume for the House of Schiaparelli. She designed costumes and decorations for theater, ballet and opera, including the first ballet performed by Roland Petit’s Ballet de Paris, “Les Demoiselles de la nuit”, featuring a young Margot Fonteyn. This was a payment of gratitude for Fini’s having been instrumental in finding the funding for the new ballet company. She also designed the costumes for two films, Renato Castellani’s Romeo and Juliet (1954) and John Huston’s A Walk with Love and Death (1968), which starred 18 year old Anjelica Huston and Moshe Dayan’s son, Assaf.
She once said,
Marriage never appealed to me, I’ve never lived with one person. Since I was 18, I’ve always preferred to live in a sort of community – A big house with my atelier and cats and friends, one with a man who was rather a lover and another who was rather a friend. And it has always worked.
Fini only married once, for a brief period,to Fedrico Veneziani. They were divorced after she met the Italian Count, Stanislao Lepri, who abandoned his diplomatic career shortly after meeting Fini and lived with her thereafter. She met the Polish writer Konstanty Jeleński, known as Kot in Paris right after the war. She was delighted to discover that he was the illegitimate half-brother of Sforzino Sforza, who had been one of her most favorite lovers. Kot joined Fini and Lepri in their Paris apartment in 1952 and the three remained inseparable until their deaths. She later employed an assistant to join the household, which he described as “a little bit of prison and a lot of theatre”. One of his jobs was to look after her beloved Persian cats. Over the years she acquired 17 of them; they shared her bed and, at mealtimes, were allowed to roam the dining-table selecting tasty morsels – and woe betide the guest who complained. The ‘inner circle’ expanded to include the American artist, Richard Overstreet and the Argentinian poet Juan-Bautista Pinero.
In the 1970s, she wrote three novels, Rogomelec, Moumour, Contes pour enfants velu and Oneiropompe. Her friends included Jean Cocteau, Giorgio de Chirico, and Alberto Moravia, Fabrizio Clerci and most of the other artists and writers inhabiting or visiting Paris. She illustrated many works by the great authors and poets, including Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire and Shakespeare, as well as texts by new writers. She was very generous with her illustrations and donated many drawings to writers to help them get published. She is, perhaps, best known for her graphic illustrations for Histoire d’O.
It has been said about her that she is the only artist to paint women without apology. Many of her paintings feature strong, beautiful women (many times resembling herself) in ceremonial or provocative situations. Men are often portrayed as lithe figures who are under the protection of her females. The sphinx and cats play major parts in her paintings, as does the theme of ‘the double’. She was equally adept at etching, drawing, watercolor and oil painting. She lived with many cats; up to a total of 23 at one time. The illness of one of her cats could send her into a deep depression.