Fernando Botero: 'The Most Colombian of Colombian Artists'

Colombian Painter and Sculptor Fernando Botero
Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero poses with one of his paintings in his Paris studio. Born in Medellin, Colombia, in 1932, Botero is known for his distinctive style of smooth, inflated shapes with unexpected shifts in scale. His work is often social commentary with a humorous tone. From 1953 to 1955, he studied fresco technique and art history, which has greatly influenced his painting. Sygma via Getty Images / Getty Images

Colombian artist and sculptor Fernando Botero is known for the exaggerated proportions of his subjects. Using big, round images as both humor and political commentary, his style is so unique that it has become known as Boterismo, and he refers to himself as "the most Colombian of Colombian artists."

Fernando Botero Fast Facts

  • Born: April 19, 1932, in Medellin, Colombia
  • Parents: David Botero and Flora Angulo
  • Spouses: Gloria Zea 1955—1960, Cecilia Zambrano (unmarried partners) 1964—1975, Sophia Vari 1978—present
  • Known For: Proportionally exaggerated "fat figures," in the style now called Boterismo
  • Key Accomplishments: Had to flee his home country of Colombia when he painted a series of works depicting cartel king Pablo Escobar; also accused of being "anti-American" for his images of prisoners in Abu Ghraib

Early Life

Sothebys Launch Their Beyond Limits Exhibition At Chatsworth House
Dancers by artist Fernando Botero adorn the gardens of Chatsworth House on September 10, 2009, Chatsworth, England. Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Fernando Botero was born in Medellin, Colombia, on April 19, 1932. He was the second of three children born to David Botero, a traveling salesman, and his wife Flora, a seamstress. David died when Fernando was just four years old, but an uncle stepped in and played a formative role in his childhood. As a teen, Botero went to matador school for several years, beginning when he was twelve. Bullfights would eventually become one of his favorite subjects to paint.

After a couple of years, Botero decided to leave the bullring and enrolled in a Jesuit-run academy which offered him a scholarship. However, that didn't last long—Botero's art presented a conflict with the strict Catholic guidelines of the Jesuits. He got in trouble frequently for painting nudes, and was ultimately expelled from the academy for writing a paper in which he defended Pablo Picasso's paintings—Picasso was an atheist who was somewhat obsessed with images depicting Christianity in a way that was seen as blasphemous.

Botero left Medellin and moved to Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, where he finished his education at another art school. His work was soon displayed in local galleries, and in 1952, he won an art competition, earning enough money to get him to Europe. Settling in Madrid for a time, Botero earned a living by painting copies of the works of Spanish masters like Goya and Velásquez. Eventually, he made his way to Florence, Italy, to study fresco techniques.

He told Americas writer Ana Maria Escallon,

"Nobody ever told me: 'Art is this.' 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."

Style, Sculpture, and Paintings

Fernando Botero in his art studio in Paris...
Fernando Botero in his art studio in Paris circa 1982 in Paris, France. Images Press / Getty Images

Botero's unique style of painting and sculpting bullfighters, musicians, high society women, circus performers, and reclining couples is characterized by rounded, exaggerated forms and more than disproportionate volume. He refers to them as "fat figures," and explains that he paints people in large sizes because he simply likes the way they look, and enjoys playing around with scale.

His iconic subjects appear in exhibitions around the globe, both as paintings and sculptures. His sculptures are typically cast in bronze, and he says, “Sculptures permit me to create real volume… One can touch the forms, one can give them smoothness, the sensuality that one wants.”

Many of Botero's sculpted works appear in street plazas in his native Colombia; there are 25 on display as part of a donation he made to the city. The Plaza Botero, home to the large figures, is located outside Medellin’s contemporary art museum, while the museum itself houses nearly 120 donated Botero pieces. This makes it the second largest collection of Botero art in the world—the biggest is in Bogotá, at the aptly named Botero Museum. In addition to these two installations in Colombia, Botero's art appears in displays all around the world. However, he considers Colombia his true home, and has referred to himself as "The Most Colombian of Colombian Artists."

When it comes to paintings, Botero is incredibly prolific. Over the course of his sixty-plus-year career, he has painted hundreds of pieces, which draw from a diverse array of artistic influences, from Renaissance masters to abstract expressionism. Many of his works contain satire and sociopolitical commentary.

Political Commentary

THE COLOMBIAN SCULPTOR FERNANDO BOTERO IN FLORENCE
'Woman with a fruit' on exhibition in Florence. Sygma via Getty Images / Getty Images

Botero's work has occasionally gotten him in trouble. Pablo Escobar, also from Medellin, was a drug cartel lord in the 1980s, before being killed in a shootout in 1993. Botero famously painted a series of images called La Muerte de Pablo Escobar—the death of Pablo Escobar—which didn't go over well with those who saw Escobar as a folk hero. Botero had to flee Colombia for a while for his own safety.

In 2005, he began production on a series of nearly ninety paintings depicting the torture of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib detention center, just west of Baghdad. Botero says he got hate mail for the series, and was accused of being "anti-American." He told Kenneth Baker of the SF Gate:

"Anti-American it's not... Anti-brutality, anti-inhumanity, yes. I follow politics very closely. I read several newspapers every day. And I have a great admiration for this country. 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."

Now in his eighties, Botero continues to paint, dividing his time between Paris and Italy, in the homes he shares with his wife, Greek artist Sophia Vari.

Sources

  • Baker, Kenneth. “Abu Ghraib's Horrific Images Drove Artist Fernando Botero into Action.” SFGate, San Francisco Chronicle, 19 Jan. 2012, www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Abu-Ghraib-s-horrific-images-drove-artist-2620953.php.
  • "Botero's Sculptures Around the World.” Art Weekenders, 14 July 2015, blog.artweekenders.com/2014/04/14/boteros-sculptures-around-world/.
  • Matladorre, Josephina. “Fernando Botero: 1932-: Artist - Trained As Bullfighter.” Review, York, Scholastic, and Press - JRank Articles, biography.jrank.org/pages/3285/Botero-Fernando-1932-Artist-Trained-Bullfighter.html.