Art of the 20th Century


Art Styles in 20th century Art Map


Fernando Botero



Fernando Botero

Fernando Botero's satirical portraits of political, military and religious figures, musicians and royalty are portrayed as rotund and motionless, taking on the character of human still-life. Humorous in nature at first glance, Botero's paintings are more often than not social commentary with political overtones.

Born in Medellin, Colombia, Botero moved to Bogota in 1951 and had his first international show at the Leo Matiz Gal. Leaving for Madrid in 1952, he studied at the San Fernando Academy and, from 1953 until 1955, studied fresco technique and art history in Florence which has influenced his painting ever since. Returning to Colombia, he exhibited at the Biblioteca Nacional in Bogota and began teaching at the School of Fine Arts of the National University; the same year, he spent time in Mexico studying the political murals of Rivera and Orozco, whose influence is evident in his political perspective.

Botero's visit to the United States in the late 1950s prompted a return to live and work in New York for ten years beginning in 1960. Although Abstract Expressionism interested him, he sought his primary inspiration from the Italian Renaissance. During this period he began to experiment with creating volume in his paintings by expanding the figures and compressing the space around them, a quality which he continues to explore whether painting imaginary group portraits or parodies on the work of famous masters.

Widely exhibited in Europe and North and South America, Botero has received numerous awards including the First Intercol at the Museum of Modern Art in Bogota, and is included in major museums worldwide. Since the early 1970s, Botero has divided his time between Paris, Madrid and Medellin.




Fernando Botero: The Praise of Opulence

(Jose Maria Faerna)


"One day I made a drawing of a mandolin and, by mistake, I traced a minuscule dot in lieu of the sound hole, . . . which made the instrument look swollen and massive," thus Fernando Botero described the genesis of his distinctive, inflated style. This was not the discovery of the Colombian artist's preference for massive forms, as he had had a similar realization a few years earlier while studying the paintings of Piero della Francesca. The mandolin episode, however, was a pivotal moment in Botero's artistic career. Extreme deformation has since become the hallmark of his figures. In fact, this trait is at times so powerful that it has been known to eclipse other aspects of his work.

A Plastic World

Some critics, who see Botero as the standard-bearer of a new model of human beauty, have approached his paintings with such enthusiasm that it has proved harmful to an accurate understanding of his work. Artistic qualities of his painting aside, these apologists have praised the artist's dauntless confrontation of a society obsessed with thinness. The smug bodies in Botero's pictures could be seen as alternatives to the anorexic paradigm favored by much of contemporary culture. This oversimplification ignores the real intentions of the artist, who does not seek to comment on trends set by the modern world. Instead, Botero chooses certain motifs based strictly upon their formal possibilities. At the same time, he aspires to endow them with a sort of beauty that operates exclusively within the confines of the artistic realm. As the Peruvian writer Vargas Llosa once observed, the excessive anatomies are not degraded versions, rather, they are refinements of real beings in flesh and blood; they are "plastic beings, denizens of a fully autonomous world of forms and colors."


As a connoisseur of art history, Botero traced the archetypes of his style in examples from the past. He discovered that in the history of ancient sculpture, the periods of artistic maturity—Egypt's Old Kingdom or fifth-century Greece, for instance—coincided with an exaltation of volumes and the portrayal of little emotion. So too in painting, Botero found similar traits in the monumental and hieratic figures of Giotto, Uccello, Ingres, and Piero della Francesca. Ever since observing a reproduction of The Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba by Piero della Francesca in the window of a bookstore in Madrid, he has been a constant reference in Botero's work.

When he was in Florence the Colombian artist embraced Bernard Berenson's ideas—collected in Italian Painters of the Renaissance— concerning what the art historian referred to as "the tactile values" of painting. Botero strove to elicit similar tactile sensations, which he observed in the artistic heritage of Pre-Columbian civilizations, as well as in the works of Mexican muralists such as Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros. In doing so, he freely altered the proportions of his figures, convinced that distortion is the essence of art, even in its most classic expressions. Alongside these archetypal underpinnings drawn from diverse reaches in the history of art, there are other, more indefinite forces that may help to further explain Botero's distinctive artistic development. Perhaps it was the influence of Colombia's natural exuberance—a land conducive to a certain degree of excessiveness—as described in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Maybe this consistent abundance was the artist's attempt to fulfill his childhood dream of being "bigger, sturdier, physically more important."

The Figurative Challenge

Even in an era often dominated by abstraction and the starkest forms of conceptualism, Botero remains solely in the domain of figurative art. With a few exceptions of works executed early in his career, Botero's pictures are highly polished, without the slightest trace of the artist's gestural brushstrokes. In constructing his images, however, he proceeds in a manner similar to that of an abstract painter, heeding only the demands of color and form. This translates into an expansion of volumes and the modification of the relative size and variety of the compositional elements. The common inclusion of snakes, flies, birds, and other seemingly incongruous figures has erroneously been regarded as evidence of the artist's allegorical intentions, or of certain fickle surrealist ambitions. The painter defends the purely formal aspects of his work, insisting that he only uses these figures to introduce various colors and shapes into his compositions. At the same time, Botero does not deny the presence of a satirical vein in some of his paintings, most typically in those works dealing with politics or the clergy. His is an invariably benign satire that, in the physical execution of the painting, naturally fades into the background.


Few artists have been able to create a world as subjective and altogether distinctive as Botero's. Relying resolvedly on his independently formed beliefs, the painter proceeded to lay the foundations of his own plastic idiom, which have remained consistent for several decades. Even throughout the most difficult periods in his life—when anARTneivs critic described his figures as "fetuses begotten by Mussolini on an idiot peasant woman" or after the death of his young son, for example—Botero's work has retained its characteristic sage ingenuousness, as well as its inherent contentment and opulence.


Fernando Botero

b. 1932



Although Botero has lived in a wide array of places, his Colombian homeland plays a consistent and crucial role in his work. He was born in 1932 in Medellin, a city located in the heart of the Antioquia province. The artist spent his early years in this region characterized by its precipitous terrain, which is intersected by the spurs and foothills of the Andes, and furrowed by hard-to-reach valleys. The young man's restless nature and artistic inclinations clashed with his provincial surroundings. A revealing episode from those years is Botero's expulsion from high school following the publication in the local newspaper of his article entitled "Picasso and Non-Conformity in Art." His discussion of the importance of distortion in Picasso's works was deemed obscene by the local authorities, who had already reprimanded Botero for previously publishing some of his own drawings of nudes.

First Steps

Expulsion from school and the attendant suspension of his scholarship forced Botero to continue his studies in the nearby town of Marinilla, where he supported himself by illustrating a number of periodicals and designing theater sets. In the early 1950s, after completing his studies Botero moved to Bogota, where he consorted with the cream of the Colombian intelligencija. Within a few months of his arrival in the capital city, and soon after his nineteenth birthday, Botero had his first solo show. With the sale of several works he was able to afford a short stay in the Caribbean town of Tolu. The few months he spent there were devoted almost entirely to painting. The following year Botero held a second solo show, in which he exhibited works executed in Tolu and in the months immediately thereafter. This group of paintings, heavily influenced by Gauguin, as well as the early works of Picasso, sold extremely well. This income along with money from a painting award enabled Botero to fulfill his dream of traveling to Europe.

The European Dream

Botero arrived in Barcelona in the summer of 1952. The painter, whose knowledge of modern art was limited to reproductions he had seen printed in books, was quite disappointed by the scarcity of actual works available to him in the Catalan city. He soon moved to Madrid, where he would reside for several months. In the Spanish capital Botero enrolled in the Academia San Fernando. When he was not attending classes he often visited the Museo del Prado, attracted by its collection of works by Velazquez and Goya. From Madrid he moved to Paris, where, feeling an increasing sense of kinship with the old masters and evermore estranged from avant-garde styles, Botero went to few museums other than the Louvre. At the end of the summer of 1953, after his brief sojourn in the French capital, he settled in Florence and enrolled in the Fine Arts Academy of San Marco to learn fresco painting techniques. His stay lasted more than two years and it proved to be the most important period of his artistic training. This formative stage was crucial in several respects. Not only was Botero able to observe firsthand the creations of Giotto and the Renaissance masters, he

also profited greatly from his teacher, Roberto Longhi, as well as from the writings of Bernard Berenson.

The Two Americas

After his enriching experiences in Italy, Botero's return to Colombia resulted in a bitter homecoming. The exhibition in Bogota of the works he had painted in Europe was a complete failure; he did not sell a single picture. At the outset of 1956, in the aftermath of this harsh disappointment, the artist left Colombia and established residence in Mexico City with his new wife, Gloria Zea. It was there that the celebrated mandolin episode took place, and under the influence of Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros—the great muralists he had admired throughout his earliest Colombian phase—Botero began to develop his distinctive style of overblown forms. That same year, his work was shown for the first time in the United States, and his success began to grow. At age twenty-six, Botero was appointed professor of painting at the Art Academy of Bogota, and his pictures continued to attract an increasing number of buyers. This was, however, a difficult period for Botero in both his personal life and his career. In 1960 he began renting a small apartment in New York City while finalizing his divorce from Gloria Zea. At the same time, he endured the unequivocal hostility of art critics and his New York colleagues who, for the most part, belonged to the Abstract Expressionist school. The turning point in Botero's career came in 1961 when Dorothy Miller, then curator of museum collections at The Museum of Modern Art in New York bought his Mona Lisa, Age Tkvelve.


This purchase brought the definitive consolidation of the artist's fame. In the mid-1960s, the ocher tones and heavy brushwork of his previous paintings made way for a new style, with polished surfaces and more vivid colors, characteristic of his mature works. For the next several years Botero resided alternately in Colombia, Europe, and New York. In 1970 his son Pedro was born to his second wife, Cecilia Zambrano. In a tragic car accident just four years later, the child died and the painter suffered severe injuries.

In the ensuing years, sculpture came to occupy an increasingly important place in Botero's career. He took up residence in 1983 in Pietrasanta, a Tuscan-town famous for its foundries and numerous marble quarries. On account of this growing emphasis on sculpture, he began spending several months each year in Italy. For Botero, this was a time of renewed and intense activity in both sculpture and painting, the latter frequently depicting bullfighting themes. These works were well received and soon translated into an uninterrupted series of exhibitions. The wide-ranging retrospective of his work, held at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., in 1979, was the first in a series of similar shows. Subsequent exhibitions were held in Chicago, New York, and Madrid. Neither the fame nor the high prices fetched by his works has changed Botero's nomadic habits. To this day, the artist continues to divide his time between Colombia, New York, Paris, and Pietrasanta.



For the most part, Botero's forays into portraiture have taken the form of self-portraits, in which he subjects his own figure to the same deforming logic that he applies to all others. He does so with a good amount of humor, especially when echoing such illustrious antecedents as Rembrandt or de Chirico. He portrays himself disguised as some of the most diverse characters—projections, perhaps, of his unfulfilled desires—ranging from Spanish conquistador to gallant bullfighter. In some instances, the Colombian artist portrays himself as a tiny figure, somewhere between the medieval representation of the donor, and the self-portraits of Velazquez depicted alongside his eminent models. In other instances, however, Botero's presence is rendered almost imperceptible, as his distinctive visage timidly emerges from some minuscule cameo.


Self-Portrait the Day of My First Communion


Self-Portrait with Model


Self-Portrait with Sofia




Self Portrait


One of the most distinctive chapters in Botero's career is the one comprising his renderings of celebrated paintings from the history of art. Like Picasso and Bacon, the Colombian painter borrows motifs from a shared cultural heritage. Botero's intention, however, is not to copy Leonardo, Caravaggio, or Mantegna, since his pictures are free interpretations retaining only the subject matter of the originals. By stripping the motifs of all their stylistic traits he converts them into genuine Boteros. Although a certain touch of irony infiltrates these works, the artist's goal is not to create caricatures. Rather, they are his attempts to distill the true essences of paintings while conforming to the formal aspects of his particular style. The artist has practiced reworking art from the past since executing copies of paintings by Velazquez at the Prado, or when attending fresco classes in Florence.


Mona Lisa, Age Twelve


Mona Lisa


Menina (after Velazquez)


Rubens and his Wife


Marie Antoinette


Louis XVI


Saint Michael


Después de Piero della Francesca


Después de Pierro della Francesca


Rapto de Europa


Rapto de Europa

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