Botero, Fernando: 1932—: Artist

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Fernando Botero: 1932: Artist

Considered one of the leading figures in contemporary Latin American art, Fernando Botero has become best known for robust figures whose immense size dominate the canvas. Botero has drawn upon Colombian folklore and history, especially that of his native Antioquia, for inspiration. In the 1990s, Botero paintings began commanding figures as high as $1 million at auction, and the artist found himself playing the role of a new standard-bearer for Colombian culture, though he had not lived in his violence-plagued homeland for many years. Colombian schoolchildren have come to know him as the painter of gorditas, or "fat ladies." A fellow South American, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, commented on Botero's place in Latin American imagery in a monograph in the Great Modern Masters series, Botero. "You don't need to have actually visited the Colombia towns of Antioquia in the 1940s to be able to identify the social reality against which Botero's imagery is set," Vargas Llosa asserted. "Any Latin American will recognize in this carousel of images certain manners of feeling, dreaming, and acting that are typical of the cities and towns of the interior of any country on our continent."

Trained as Bullfighter

Botero was born in Medellín, Colombia in 1932, where his mother worked as a seam-stress to support the family after his father, a traveling salesperson, died when Botero was four. At the age of twelve he enrolled in an apprentice matador school for two years, but eventually pursued an education at a Jesuit-run academy that offered him a scholarship. He began painting at an early age, and the Colombian pastime of la corrida, or the bullfight, was a favorite subject matter. Botero made his first sale when he convinced a local merchant who sold tickets to the Medellín bullfights to display one of his works in the shop window. It sold for about $2. "He gave me the money, I put it in my pocket and ran home to tell my brothers," he told Los Angeles Times journalist Juanita Darling. "I lost the money, and they didn't believe me."

The conflict between his art leanings and his formal Roman Catholic education presented problems for Botero as a teen. He was reprimanded by his teachers for drawing nudes, and wrote an article for the school paper defending Pablo Picasso's art that led to his expulsion. He finished at another liceo in 1951, and moved to Colombia's capital city, Bogotá. Its Galerias de Arte Foto-Estudio Leo Matiz was the first to show Botero's paintings that same year. After winning a 1952 competition, he earned enough money to allow him to travel and study in Europe. He settled in Madrid for a time to study at the Academia in San Ferdinando, earning his living by selling copies of Spanish masters Velásquez and Goya on the street. Long fascinated by the work of Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Botero then moved on to Florence, Italy, to learn fresco techniques at the Academy of Fine Arts. In both instances, Botero received little attention from his teachers. "Nobody ever told me: 'Art is this,'" he later said in an interview with Americas writer Ana Maria Escallon. "This was good luck in a way because I would have had to spend half of my life forgetting everything that I had been told, which is what happens with most students in schools of fine arts."

At a Glance . . .

Born Fernando Botero Angulo, April 19, 1932, in Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia; son of David (a salesperson) and Flora Angulo (a seamstress) de Botero; married Gloria Zea, 1955 (divorced, 1960); married Cedilia Zambrano, 1964 (divorced, 1975); children: (with Zea) Fernando, Lina, Juan Carlos. Education: Liceo de la Universidad de Antioquia, baccalaureate, 1950; studied at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes, San Ferdinando, Spain, 1952, and at the Accademia San Marco and the Universitá degli Studi, Florence, 1953.

Career: Illustrator for Sunday literary supplement of El Colombiano, Medellín, 1948-51; painter, 1950; first exhibition of paintings hosted by Galerias de Arte Foto-Estudio Leo Matiz, Bogotá, 1951; first exhibition outside of Colombia at Galeria Antonio Souza, Mexico City, 1957, and first in United States at Pan American Union, Washington, D.C., 1957; taught at Escuela de Bellas Artes in Bogotá, 1958; included in 1965's "The Emergent Decade: Latin American Painting," at the Guggenheim Museum of New York (toured the United States and Canada, 1965-67); first exhibition in Europe at Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden, West Germany, 1966.

Awards: First Prize for Painting, Salon Anual de Artistas Colombianos, Bogotá, 1958; Colombian Section Award, Guggenheim International Award Exhibition, New York, 1960; Andrés Bello Award, President of Venezuela, 1975; Cruz de Boyacá for service to Colombia, Government of Antioquia, 1977.

Address: Office 900 Park Ave #22A, New York, NY, 10021-0231. Gallery Nohra Haime Gallery, 41 E 57th St Fl 6, New York, NY, 10022-1908.

Developed Signature Style

Returning to Bogotá in 1955, Botero experienced a career setback when he showed a group of paintings, inspired by his time in Florence, and none sold. Between 1956 to 1958 he spent time in Mexico City and New York City. During this period he started painting larger human figures on his canvas, beginning with a work called Still Life with Mandolin. As he told the Los Angeles Times, "I was drawing a mandolin, and I made the sound hole very small, which made the mandolin look gigantic. I saw that making the details small made the form monumental. So in my figures, the eyes, the mouth are all small and the exterior form is huge." The style would become his trademark, and make him one of the most recognizable artists of the twentieth century.

Botero was feted with his first exhibition outside of Colombia at the Galeria Antonio Souza in Mexico City in 1957, and had another one that same year at the Pan American Union in Washington, D.C. Critics dismissed his work, but many of the paintings sold. In 1961 Botero moved to New York City permanently. He kept a studio in Greenwich Village for the next dozen years, but his work continued to meet with rejection from the critical establishment. "As a quirky, classicising Colombian obsessed with volume, when flatness was the rage, he was cold-shouldered, or worse," noted an Economist article. "One New York critic described his voluptuous nudes as 'fetuses begotten by Mussolini on a peasant woman.'" In 1961 the Museum of Modern Art in New York City acquired his Mona Lisa at 12, which boosted his reputation in the art world immensely.

But when his New York gallery suddenly closed, Botero faced further financial hardship. At the time, he was divorced and the father of three, and the children spent weekends with him. To entertain them cheaply, he took them to cemeteries and to Central Park. "I grew up believing that Tarzan lived in Central Park and that there were piranhas in the park ponds," his son, Juan Carlos, told the Los Angeles Times. In 1965 Botero was included in "The Emergent Decade: Latin American Painting," at the Guggenheim Museum of New York, which also toured several American and Canadian cities. He was honored the following year with his first exhibition in Europe, at the Staatliche Kunsthalle of Baden-Baden, West Germany, which marked another turning point in his career. With increasing financial success, Botero began dividing his time between a house on Long Island, a summer place in Colombia, and Paris. Tragedy struck, however, when his young son from a second marriage died in a 1974 automobile accident. Botero himself was injured in the crash, losing a finger and some movement in his right arm. He commemorated the boy, Pedro, in several later paintings.

Botero's art evolved into a starkly recognizable style. Large men and women dominate his canvases, which are painted with a distinct flatness that emphasizes color and form. Nostalgic scenes from the everyday Colombian life are a favorite topic, but he has also become known for his still lifes. Medellín's tile rooftops, slatternly maids, pompous military officers, and complacently bourgeois familieswith equally distended household petshave been some of Botero's favorite subjects. In an interview with the Americas, Botero commented on this flatness found in his work, and believed it was a "a reflection of the art that I was exposed to as a child; it was the art you find in churches. It was the ritual of daily mass that I lived until I was twelve years old, and that was the way, I think, that I got the idea that smooth surface is linked to beauty in art."

Botero began exploring three-dimensional round forms in 1975, when he could afford to start casting in bronze. He gained further artistic tribute with a 1979 retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. In 1992 Botero's The House of the Arias Twins set a record for the second-highest auction price paid for the work of a living Latin American artist. In the early 1990s he gained a great deal of public exposure when a series of large sculptures appeared in temporary installations on some of the world's most famous streets. His fanciful bulls and reclining women amused passersby on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Manhattan's Park Avenue, and Chicago's Michigan Avenue.

Botero and the Medellín Cartel

Over the years, Botero grew incensed that his home-town of Medellín became linked with an infamous drug-trafficking cartel of the same name. Run by Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar, the Medellín cartel gained an international reputation for cunning and violence. Botero was reportedly angered that two of his paintings were found in Escobar's home after the kingpin was slain in 1993. The death of Escobar, however, did not end the violence in Medellín, and the artist himself was a victim of a kidnaping there in 1994. In June of 1995, a bomb attack in downtown Medellín targeted a statue of a dove that Botero had donated to the city. The symbol of peace exploded, killing 25. A guerrilla group claimed responsibility, calling Botero a symbol of oppression, and though he was initially angry, he cast a new dove for the plaza.

Colombia's political quagmire has even affected Botero's relations with his son, also called Fernando. The younger Botero was accused of accepting drug money when he served as campaign director for President Ernesto Samper's successful 1994 election, and the two did not speak for a time. In 1996, however, the Harvard-educated younger Botero, then serving as the country's defense minister, voiced public criticism of Samper and admitted that large sums had been donated to the campaign by drug kingpins.

In 2000 Botero began showing a series of paintings that reflected the recent decade of political violence in Colombia. One depicted Escobar's death, while others portrayed car bombings and bar massacres. Such subject matter was a distinct change from his usual bucolic style, he agreed in a Christian Science Monitor article. "Art should be an oasis, a place or refuge from the hardness of life," Botero told the paper. "But the Colombian drama is so out of proportion that today you can't ignore the violence, the thousands displaced and dead, the processions of coffins. Against all my principles, I had to paint [the violence]."

Donated Paintings to Colombia

To help alleviate some of Colombia's collective dispirit, Botero donated some $120 million worth of paintings and sculpture to revive the country's visual-arts foundations. They included his own paintings as well as priceless works he had personally acquired by Picasso, Auguste Renoir, and Salvador Dali. The paintings were housed in a Bogotá museum and in a newly renovated showcase in Medellín, the Museum of Antioquia. The former city hall dominates a neighborhood that was once rife with crime and prostitution, but was rejuvenated with the help of government renovation and Botero's largesse. "What I am doing here is a justification for my life," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I have the sensation of doing something good for people, more than being a trendy artist or a successful artist . Thousands of people are going to enjoy this. That's a tremendous pleasure."

Botero maintained homes in Tuscany, Colombia, Monte Carlo, New York City, and other places. Since 1976 the artist has been romantically linked with Greek-born sculptor Sophia Vari. He worked seven days a week, eight hours a day. "The truth is," he told Darling in the Los Angeles Times, "I haven't found anything more fun than work."



Contemporary Artists, fourth edition, St. James Press, 1996.

Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.

Faerna, José Marí, general editor, Botero, Cameo/Abrams, 1997.


Americas (English Edition), November-December 1996, p. 50, p. 52; March 2001, p. 60.

Art in America, November 1993, p. 50.

Christian Science Monitor, January 8, 2001, p. 6.

Dallas Morning News, February 5, 1996, p. 7A.

Economist, February 17, 2001, p. 7.

Florida Trend, August 1994, p. 57.

Los Angeles Times, November 2, 2000, p. A1.

People, December 13, 1993, p. 109.

WWD, April 3, 2001, p. 3.

Carol Brennan