Fernando Botero

Colombian Painter and Sculptor

Born: April 19, 1932
Medellín, Colombia
Died: September 15, 2023
When I think of reality, I think of a painted reality.
Fernando Botero

Summary of Fernando Botero

Botero is South America's best known, and best loved, living artist. A figurative painter and sculptor, his style - known throughout the world of art as "Boterismo" - is instantly recognizable for its exuberant and sensuous volumetric form. His rounded figures and objects, that are often infused with a sense of affectionate humor and charm, has seen the artist's distractors dismiss him as little more than a "painter of fat people". In fact, his oeuvre shows off an impressive thematic range. In addition to his scenes of everyday Colombian life; his human and animal portraits; and his series of luscious still lifes, Botero has proved willing to address more overtly political topics head-on. These pieces have included series' tackling Colombia's drugs cartels, and alleged human rights abuses perpetrated by the American military in Iraq. Botero has also produced a small, but highly distinctive, reworkings of iconic works from the canon of Western art.


The Life of Fernando Botero

For Botero, whatever his subject matter, his theme "is Colombia and it has always been Colombia"; and despite extended stays in New York and Paris, he had "never had the feeling to paint an American or a French subject matter [...] the art - and the artist", he said, "must have roots in his own land, in his own life: my life is in Colombia, and my land is Colombia".

Progression of Art


Portrait of a Young Indian

In this, one of Botero's earlier paintings, we see a dark-skinned, long-haired figure, wearing a light pink collared shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, matched with tan pants. The figure is seated on a small brown table, with his or her hands resting on the table. Behind the table is a white wall, upon which we see part of two artworks on either side of the figure. The figure's head is tilted slightly to the right. The eyes are not rendered in detail, so we are unsure if they are looking at the viewer, or slightly down and off to the side.

Before he developed his signature "Boterismo" style, Botero experimented with recreating various historical styles. He became so adept at a range of styles that, at his first exhibition in Colombia in 1952, many visitors believed it to be a group exhibition. This work shows the influence of the Post-Impressionist painters, such as Gauguin and Cezanne, with its course, visible brushstrokes. This is a sharp contrast to Botero's later style, in which brushwork is transparent and surfaces are rendered smoothly. The painting also predates the size distortion of figures and objects that characterizes "Boterismo", and the vibrant color palette that Botero adopted after his stay in Mexico in 1956.

Oil on canvas


Still Life with Violin

In this work, Botero paints a still life with fruit and a violin sitting on a tabletop swathed in light pink fabric. The objects in the image have been represented with the voluminosity that Botero's name would become associated with. The fruit are plump, and the seemingly inflated violin bulges outward along its edges. Even the fabric has a thick, "pudgy" quality. For Botero, painting in this manner expresses "the sensuality of the form and the voluptuousness and exuberance of nature expressed in art," and functions thus to elicit "pleasure" in the viewer. Responding to the common view of his painted objects and figures as "fat", Botero asserts that a more accurate term would be "volumetric". He explains, "I am convinced that painting must be generous, sensual, voluptuous, and I discovered a way to express this sensuality magnifying forms and volumes. You see, it is not a comment about fatness or thinness; it is the reflection of a certain way to conceive beauty in art".

Specifically, Botero considers the still life to be the purest form an artist can paint. He asserts that, if an artist can imagine a collection of fruit, for instance, "It shows the degree of conviction [...] It makes [his or her] style stronger and clearer". Botero is not, therefore, concerned with literal renderings of people or objects. Of an orange (his favorite fruit to paint) he says, "I look at it, then I eat it, then I paint it" adding that "I have never worked with models nor have I ever placed a dead piece of nature on the table to paint it [...] I have never wanted to be a prisoner to reality". The earliest work in which he mastered his Boterismo style was in fact a still life with a mandolin, painted in 1956 and he has continued to paint Boterismo still lifes, including Still Life with Ice Cream (1990) and Still Life with Books (1999), throughout his long career.

Oil on canvas


Woman with a Mirror

For his many public sculptures, Botero works with bronze, although when he began experimenting with sculpture in the mid-1960s, financial limitations had forced him to work with acrylic resin and sawdust. These early works proved too porous, and he could not produce the desired finish. As his success grew, however, he was able to afford better materials (and even set up a dedicated sculpture studio in Pietrasanta, Italy).

This oversized bronze sculpture is of a corpulent woman lying on her stomach. She holds a mirror in her left hand as she turns her head to the left. Her right hand touches her hair flirtatiously; her expression serene and thoughtful. In this, and similar public sculptures, Botero translates the voluminosity that characterizes his paintings into exuberent three-dimensional forms. Indeed, Botero's son (and biographer) Juan Carlos suggests that even when placed in grand locations, such as the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, or Park Avenue in New York City, these pieces are never "crushed" or dwarfed by the nearby architecture.

Many of his sculptures have been placed in outdoor public locations with the idea that pedestrians and passersby can interact with the works (children, for instance, can often be seen climbing and playing on his giant figures). Indeed, Botero designs his sculptures to provoke feelings of happiness and pleasure. Of Woman with the Mirror, the art historian Edward J. Sullivan writes that "It's impossible not to like Fernando Botero's sculpture, an outgrowth of the Colombian artist's constant search for three-dimensionality that pervades his popular paintings of puffy endomorphs. His sculpted women are monumental oceans of flesh, beckoning and vulnerable at once [...] Boisterous and touching at once, with echoes of pre-Columbian art, his oversized sculptures are a human comedy for our time".

Bronze - Plaza de Colón, Madrid, Spain


The Arnolfini after Van Eyck

In this work, Botero has recreated the composition of Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait (1434), staying faithful to the original composition, the color scheme, and the main symbolic details (such as the dog representing loyalty and nobility, and the fruit on the windowsill representing original sin). However, he has inflated van Eyck's slender figures (particularly the wedded man and woman, as well as the dog at their feet), presenting them as rounded and plump in accordance with his "Boterismo" style. Botero had visited the original van Eyck work numerous times in the National Gallery in London, and created several of his own versions, starting as early as the 1970s.

Arts editor Alice Invernizzi writes that, "In each different version Botero has modified the composition, focusing above all on the relationship between the spectator and the spaces", and asserts that Botero's version is unique in "the way in which he uses pictorial illusionism to affirm and at the same time compromise the concept of realism in painting". Invernizzi adds that Botero has taken the liberty of presenting the female figure as definitively pregnant, with her hand placed simply upon her belly, whereas most art historians now agree that the female figure in van Eyck's portrait is not pregnant, but rather gathering and holding the heavy fabric of her fashionable dress in her hand.

Botero has paid homage to several art historical masterpieces, using the Boterismo style to turn Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa (1503) into Mona Lisa, Age Twelve (1959), Raphael's La Fornarina (1518-20) into his own La Fornarina (2009), and Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas (1656) into La Menina (1982). Botero has explained that the themes of these famous works "are so important to me as they become popular and more or less belonging to all. Only then can I do something different with them. Sometimes I just want to understand a painting in a more profound and complete way, its technique and the spirit that leads it". It seems, moreover, that the Arnolfini Portrait was an ideal work for Botero to adapt since it allowed him to rejoice in the voluminous quality of the human figure in contemporary art (and even in the detail of the rear view of the figures caught on the wall-mounted convex mirror).

Oil on canvas - Private collection


Car Bomb

Car Bomb, a dizzying, chaotic, composition, comes from a series of twenty-seven drawings and twenty-three paintings that Botero produced which focus on drug-related violence in Colombia. In the foreground an exploding blue automobile crumbles as flames burst out through the windows and windshield and blue and grey pieces of the wrecked car are being projected outward. In the background, the explosion has affected nearby houses which are toppling over, their balconies, doors, and roof-slates slanting at angles.

Other works in the "Violence" series include El Cazador (1999), in which a man holding a submachine gun stands with one foot on a corpse who has been riddled with bullets, and Massacre in the Cathedral (2002), which shows the aftermath of a rebel rocket attack that killed 120 citizens. Many of the works in the series juxtapose dramatic scenes against tranquil, placid scenery and landscapes, highlighting the horror of drug violence in the country. Colombian journalist Juan Forero notes that "Though the paintings and sketches in the war collection maintain the bright colors and sharp texture of his other works, they are filled with raw energy and agony", while Elvira Cuervo de Jaramillo, director of the National Museum in Bogotá, says that ''What [Botero] transmits is immense pain when we see figures of massacres, of death, of torture. They do not produce pleasure, or smiles. They are meant to move you. They chill you to your bones".

Botero's Violence series does not depict real events, but rather, shows the artist's own vision of what was happening in his country. He also explains that he had no illusions that the works would contribute to the lessening of violence in Colombia, but rather, hoped for them to serve as a "testimonial to a terrible moment, a time of insanity in this country [...] ''If they make an impression on the public, I have completed the mission of showing the absurdity of the violence". As a footnote, he explained that he had had "no intention of earning money exploiting Colombia's drama", and rather than going up for sale, every work in the series was to be donated free to a museum, so that the Colombian people "can see their history".

Oil on canvas - Private collection


Abu Ghraib 46

In this harrowing painting, three naked and blindfolded men lie on a brown floor, in front of iron bars that indicates that they are in a prison cell. Bright red blood is seen on the wall at the left-hand side, as well as on the men, particularly on their knees, shoulders, elbows, hands, and buttocks. The two men closest to the viewer lay on their sides, with their backs to the viewer, and their hands bound behind their backs. It is unclear if they are dead or alive. They both wear green blindfolds. The man in the middle also has his feet bound together with rope. The man furthest back is on his knees and forearms, and vomit is spewing from his mouth. His blindfold is red.

After he produced his series on Colombian drug violence, Botero continued to work with disturbing subject matter based on real events. This work comes from his Abu Ghraib series, which was comprised of eighty-five paintings and one hundred drawings inspired by the shocking news of the inhumane torture of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of American soldiers. Botero says that when he read this news, "I immediately felt that I had to do something about it. I had to raise my voice as an artist to denounce the horror committed by the United States, and the hypocrisy of its denunciations of human rights violations in other parts of the world".

Human rights attorney Marc Falkoff writes that Botero's Abu Ghraib series is a "wonderful project" that begins "to restore our humanity by making the victims of our complacency visible to us. [...] In times like these, we must rely on art - the great vehicle for empathy - to restore to us our innate compassion [...] and to move us toward protest and engagement". As with his Violence series, Botero refused to profit from the works, and instead promised to donate them to any museum that would agree to put them on permanent display. Botero's New York gallery, which first exhibited the Abu Ghraib works, received hate mail for some who interpreted the work as anti-American. It was a charge strongly refuted by the artist: "Anti-American it's not ... Anti-brutality, anti-inhumanity, yes ... I'm sure the vast majority of people here don't approve of this. And the American press is the one that told the world this is going on. You have freedom of the press that makes such a thing possible".

Oil on canvas - University of California, Berkeley Art Museum


Circus People

In this vibrant painting, Botero presents a group of circus performers who appear to be sitting around, outside of their caravans either before or just after a performance. A large, fleshy woman wearing a blue bikini, brown knee-high boots, and a gold headdress with a red feather, lays on a purple carpet with a red and yellow snake slithering across her body. Beside her, a small white dog with a pink collar and white pointed hat sits up on its hind legs. Behind the dog is a man seated on a green box with a monkey on his hand. To his right is a large, muscular man in green tights and a red tank top, in the process of swallowing a sword. Beside him is a dwarf dressed in a white clown costume. Behind him a woman dressed in green opens the shutter of a trailer. A` red and yellow striped big top tent can be seen in the background, and beyond that, a landscape of trees and mountains.

In 2006, having spent a decade-or-so on "difficult" subject matter, Botero returned to more pleasurable themes in his art. He says that working on the Violence and Abu Ghraib series was "grim", "depressing", and "emotionally exhausting", so he, and his wife Sophia, took a vacation in Mexico. While in the coastal town of Zihuantanejo, they visited a travelling circus. Botero was immediately struck by the colors, movements, and characters of the circus, and found in them the ideal subject for his art. He notes that "the circus had been a very attractive theme for many well-known and lesser-known artists, a subject dignified in the work of Renoir, Seurat, Lautrec, Picasso, Chagall, Léger, Calder and many others". Botero has produced more than 120 oil paintings and 200 drawings on this theme.

Arts writer Curtis Bill Pepper writes that "Botero's distinctive exaggerated forms perfectly complement the exaggerated atmosphere of the circus". Botero himself explains that "There is no other human activity that presents the visual artist with the human body in poses like the circus. [...] At the same time, there is the poetry that captures the philosophy of life: nomadic people who live in wagons and who have the circus as the permanent background of their lives". The circus that inspired Botero was a "poor" circus, what he called "a very Latin American version of a universal theme". As his son and biographer Juan Carlos Botero observes, the characters in the "Circus" works wear the hardships of their lives in their expressions, yet the artist does not deride or mock them from a superior position. Instead, he treats them with humanity, and portrays them with a gentle and tender humour that is decidedly "not funny".

Oil on canvas - Private collection

Biography of Fernando Botero


Fernando Botero, the second of three sons, was born to David Botero, a traveling salesman, and Flora Angulo, a seamstress. His father owned an impressive collection of books, including illustrated volumes on the French Revolution, and Dante's Divine Comedy, which the young Fernando enjoyed looking through. His father died of a heart attack when Fernando was still just four years old and his uncle assumed the role of the father figure in his life.

Although he grew up in Medellín, Colombia's second-largest city (after Bogotá), Botero didn't have much exposure to art galleries or other cultural activities. However, he was influenced from an early age by the impressive Baroque style of the city's Spanish colonial churches, which he sketched en plein air, and by the pre-Columbian (the country gained independence from Spanish rule in 1819) artifacts held in local museum collections. He and his friends also painted street scenes from the city's red-light district.

When Botero was twelve, his uncle sent him to study at a school for matadors where he stayed for two years. However, he was more interested in art, and enjoyed drawing and painting watercolors of bulls, landscapes, and still lifes. A trader in tickets for bullfights spotted the boy's talent and subsidized his profits from ticket sales by selling some of Botero's watercolors of bulls and matadors. When he was still just sixteen, Botero participated in a group exhibition with other Colombian artists, and had his illustrations published in El Colombiano, one of the major newspapers in Medellín.

Botero used the cash payment to pay his tuition fees at the Liceo de Marinilla de Antioquia high school. He also wrote an article about Pablo Picasso for a local newspaper, in which he asserted the view that "the destruction of forms in Cubism reflected the destruction of individualism in modern society". The publication of the article was interpreted as a Marxist statement and saw him expelled from school. Botero recalled: "The dean said, 'We cannot accept rotten apples in the school. That will damage the other students.' McCarthyism was not only in America but also in Latin America, and such innocent expressions were not accepted". The setback did not dampen his ambition, however, and by the age of nineteen Botero was certain he wanted to be a painter. On hearing her son's declaration, his mother warned: "You're going to die of hunger".

Education and Early Training

Between 1949 and 1950, Botero worked in Medellín as a set designer. He then moved to Bogotá where he had his first solo exhibition at the Galería Leo Matiz in 1951. He had begun to experiment with figure proportion and size by this time but the works he presented were so varied, showing influences ranging from Gauguin to Diego Rivera, that visitors assumed it was a group show. Every work was sold, however. The 20-year-old Botero won second prize in Bogotá's Salón Nacional de Artistas, and soon after, with earnings from his gallery sales, he traveled to Europe by boat, arriving in Barcelona in 1952. Moving on to Madrid, he studied at the Academia de San Fernando, and spent time at the Prado Museum copying the works of Francisco de Goya and Diego Velázquez (even managing to sell some of his reproductions). In 1953 he moved on to Paris where he spent many hours scrutinizing works in the Louvre. Then, between 1953 and 1954, he lived in Florence, where he studied fresco painting at the Accademia San Marco, and drew inspiration from the works of Early Renaissance masters such as Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca.

By 1955 Botero was back in Colombia. He married Gloria Zea (a future director of the Colombian Institute of Culture) before the couple moved to Mexico City in 1956. It was while in Mexico that Botero had his "eureka moment" with his painting Still Life with Mandolin (1956). As Dubai's Custot Gallery explained in its Botero catalogue entry, the painting marked "a major turning point in [Botero's] career. By changing the size of the central hole of the instrument, the proportions of the mandolin also changed, giving the impression that the instrument was growing. Botero felt that something important had happened. From now on, he found his style and he would play with the proportions and the distortion of volume, not only in his human figure but also in his still life work". Botero himself recalled: "It took me fifteen years to make a 'botero' from start to finish, but I was insisting on the same idea and the same universe [...] it had coherence, and resulted from an obsession with the mandolin".

In 1957, the couple travelled to Washington D. C. for his first US exhibition, where, once again, every piece was bought by collectors. By 1958 Botero was back in Colombia where he took up the position of professor of painting at the Bogotá Academy of Art. In 1960, Botero and Zea, who by now had three children (Fernando, Lina, and Juan Carlos), divorced and he moved to New York. Botero remained in New York for over a decade, at first living in Greenwich Village, moving to a studio on the Lower East Side in 1963, before, after marrying his second wife, Cecilia Zambrano, in 1964, relocating to a studio on Fifth Avenue.

While in New York, Botero painted one of his first critiques of the Colombian state. La familia presidencial (The Presidential Family) (1967) depicts the Colombian president with his wife, mother-in-law, and daughter, flanked by a military general and a bishop. The inflated proportions of his figures are rendered in flat, bright colors and strong outlines that owe a debt to the style of Latin-American folk art. Although he did not comment on the painting, the work, which, compositionally, mirrored the formal situational portraiture executed with such skill by Goya or Velázquez, was widely understood as a thinly veiled satire on Colombian state power and corruption.

Mature Period

In 1972 Botero opened another studio, this time in Paris, as his attentions turned increasingly toward sculpture. It was the perfect medium through which to expand the style and themes of his painting. Botero and Cecilia had a son, Pedro, in 1974 but the next year the couple divorced. In 1978, Botero was married for a third time to the Greek sculptor and painter Sophia Vari (they remain married to this day). However, tragedy struck in 1979 when Pedro was killed, and Botero badly injured, in a car accident while the family was on holiday in Spain.

In 1983, Botero set up a studio in Pietrasanta, Italy, for the exclusive production of his sculptures (as the area is known for its marble quarries and foundries). He says, "I love living in Pietrasanta. This town has become a great family, a place where everybody knows me and where I can share an informal word and a glass of wine. I enjoyed painting in the small chapel of the Misercordia. I gave two frescoes as a token of my love for this land [...] I go to the beach by car or by bike. I have several houses around the world, but sentimentally speaking, this is my favorite abode".

Since his stay in Mexico City (in mid-1950s) Botero's painting often reflected the influence of the Mexican Muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Like them, he began to employ strong color schemes and he came to the realization that he had a responsibility to explore themes and subjects relating to Colombian and Latin American culture, heritage, and identity. He had, of course, already produced several paintings on this theme (notably his bullfight paintings) but by 1980 he was turning his attention more concertedly toward Colombia's popular cultural identity with scenes of Colombian nightclubs and Latin American musicians and dancers.

Arts writer Elena Martinique says that with works such as Dancing in Colombia, "one can imagine the intoxicating confluence of loud music and odors of sweat, tobacco, liquor, and cheap cologne that fill the space". While some scholars and critics were apt to read the work as "social commentary", that alludes to illicit goings-on at nightclubs (such as prostitution), art historian Kacper Grass reads the same image as revealing the "working-class origins" of Cumbia, a traditional Colombian style of dance and music that blends Indigenous, Black, and Spanish influences. For his part, Botero stated only that "music, literature, and painting - all those oases of perfection that make up art - compensate for the rudeness and materialism of life".

Late Period and Death

Moving from the late 1980s into the 1990s, Botero became increasing occupied with his sculpture, with celebrated outdoor exhibitions of his huge bronze animal and human figures. He produced several "Great Cat" sculptures which appeared in cities around the world (including Barcelona, New York, and Yerevan). They confirmed his fascination with the feline creature which had already appeared in many of his paintings, including several portraits of women (perhaps as symbol of femineity and/or domesticity).

In 1994, Botero was the victim of a failed kidnapping attempt in Bogotá. In the June of the following year, this time in Medellín, a terrorist group detonated 22-pounds of dynamite beneath his sculpture Pájaro (Bird), which he had donated to the city (in addition to 23 sculptures in a nearby park). The bombing, which occurred during a music festival, killed thirty people, and injured a further two hundred. The leftist guerrilla group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia) took responsibility for the bombing, claiming it was revenge against Botero's son, Fernando Botero Zea, who was at that time Colombia's defence minister and had refused to enter into political negotiations with the group. In peaceful response to the outrage, Botero created a new statue using the remnants of Pajaró. He named it La Paloma de la Paz (The Dove of Peace) and donated it back to the city. (Botero was deeply moved by the bombing and in 2000, he donated an identical (undamaged) bronze bird which now sits next to the rebuilt bombed statute. The names of the bombing victims are engraved on its base.)

During the 1990s Botero began to focus more on social and political issues, producing series of works that dealt explicitly with drug violence (including kidnappings, massacres and car bombings) in Colombia. He said of his Colombia drug violence series, ''They are different from what I have done in the past, the kinder Colombia that I knew as a boy. This is a Colombia that is more violent, more real. This is the fact that we cannot ignore''. He would soon turn his attentions towards another political issue, this time using his art to implicate the United States in human rights abuses. His so-called "Abu Ghraib" series highlighted the alleged torture of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, west of Baghdad. Botero was interviewed by the art critic Kenneth Baker about the series. "Art is important," Botero said, "because when people start to forget, art reminds them what happened. People would not remember the tragedy of Guernica today if it were not for that painting [Picasso's late-Cubist work Guernica (1937)]". Botero described his series in fact as a two-and-a-half-year period of "parenthesis" that, as Baker described, "[recalled] the circumstances of Picasso's frenzied production of his great anti-war statement -- an interlude between portraits of his lover at the time, Dora Maar".

In 2006 Botero returned to more benign themes in his art, like his early favorite genre, the still life. While on vacation in Mexico around this time, he visited a traveling circus that provided him with the inspiration for a new series. Indeed, the Boterismo style proved the perfect fit for the color and human drama of the circus with Botero producing more than 120 oil paintings and 200 drawings on this theme. In his final years, Botero lived and worked between Colombia, France, America, and Italy, enjoying his yacht and what he called his "favourite toy", a Rolls-Royce Phantom V. "I enjoy moving from one place to another, leading a nomadic kind of life, which suits both me and my wife" he said. He told his friends he wanted to paint until he died, and indeed he did, though, as his daughter Lina explains, "He couldn’t work on oil paintings" because he was too weak to stand and hold larger brushes, "but he was experimenting with water paintings." He passed away while in Monaco, due to complications of pneumonia. Following the news of his death, Colombian President Gustavo Petro called him "The painter of our traditions and our defects, the painter of our virtues".

The Legacy of Fernando Botero

Botero's fame rests on his unique, and consistent "Boterismo" style, which is instantly recognizable and internationally acclaimed. As curator Christian Padilla puts it, "Fernando Botero became a brand - a distinctive personality which can easily be connected to Colombia". Often misunderstood as merely "fat", his figures in fact embody a sensual and humorous voluminosity that can serve also as social critique. As the art critic Rudy Chiappini writes: "The dilation of [Botero's] subjects give them abstract, unreal, and grotesque dimensions that are studies in beauty and terror. Botero imbues his monumental figures with an overabundant sensuality that reveals a gluttony of human truth―from torture to greed, pleasure to despair, absurdity, impassivity, and more".

Botero refered to himself as the "most Colombian artist living". He dared, despite serious threats to his personal safety, to reveal the good and the bad aspects Colombian history and culture in his art. Indeed, with his compatriots Débora Arango and Pedro Alcántara, Botero helped to develop Neo-Figuration in Colombia; that is a pleasing figurative art that also dares to satirize and challenge political state corruption and oppression. As the arts writer Elena Cué summed up, "The beautiful and the violent combine together in the Boterian imagery that brings us closer to Colombia's soul through a nostalgic reminiscence".

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