Fernando Botero Dies at 91

Fernando Botero in his Monte Carlo studio, March 15, 2012. Photo: Massimo Sestini/Mondadori/Getty Images

Fernando Botero, a world-renowned Colombian artist known for his large globular figures, died September 15th at the age 91.
According to the artist’s daughter Lina Botero, the artist died from pneumonia complications in a hospital in Monaco. The news was later reverberated by Colombian president Gustavo Petro, who called the artist “the painter of our traditions and defects, the painter of our virtues.”
“Boterismo”, the style that the artist developed across his seven-decade-long career, is undeniably unique and impossible to mistake with any other artist. Botero depicted his subjects, often middle-class laborers in moments of leisure or celebration, with pinched and small facial features and plump frames. His depictions of food and land were similarly sumptuous. Explicit references to European art history permeated his painted scenes; as did, according to Taylor Dafoe from Artnet News, ‘a pair of competing impulses under the surface: humour and social critique’.

Some critics dismissed his work as unserious or out-of-touch, but once established, the artist never lacked an audience.
Botero said in a 1985 interview with Artforum, “[…]my first big gallery show was not until 1972. This was the last time I received serious critical response from the New York press. From then on when I did shows there was complete silence. It was like I was a leper. One critic in particular came to see my work and had to stand in front of it without looking because he said it made him sick. From the public I got the opposite attention.”
At the height of his career, Botero was one of the best-known—and wealthiest—artists in the world.

Fernando Botero Angulo was born on April 19, 1932, in Medellín, the second of three sons. His father, a traveling salesman, died of a heart attack when he was four, and his mother was a seamstress. An early interest in bullfighting (that seemed to be particularly encouraged by his uncle) later gave way to a passion for the arts. By age 16, he was making illustrations for a local newspaper.
In 1951, the artist moved to Bogotá, where he had his first solo show, then to Madrid to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando. Stints in Paris and Florence came next as he absorbed the kind of canonical European art to which he regularly returned in his oeuvre. In 1960, (after divorcing his first wife Gloria Zea) Botero moved to New York, where he began painting employing the kind of curvaceous forms that would become his signature. The artist struggled to be taken seriously in an environment of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism. A chance encounter with Museum of Modern Art curator Dorothy Miller, who was in his building to visit a different artist, helped him gain footing. She saw his work Mona Lisa, Age Twelve (1959) and purchased it for the museum.

Fernando Botero, Mona Lisa, Age Twelve, 1959, oil and tempera on canvas, 211 x 195.5 cm

In 1970, he had a son, Pedro, with his second wife, Cecilia Zambrano. The child died in a car accident in 1974—an event that would cast a pall over his work and personal life for years afterward. Later that decade, he started producing large-scale sculptures of his rotund figures, eventually installing some of his pieces in prominent locations around the world, such as New York’s Park Avenue and Medellín’s San Antonio Plaza.

Botero Plaza in Medellín features nearly two dozen large-scale sculptures by Botero Photo by young shanahan, via Flickr

One of Botero’s most impactful bodies of work came late in his career. In 2005, he debuted a suite of paintings based on photographs of American military members abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Whereas many of the artist’s previous efforts were met with mixed reviews, the Abu Ghraib series arrived to near-universal acclaim, recasting Botero as a deft observer of political violence.
“These paintings do something that the harrowing photographs taken at Abu Ghraib do not,” New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote at the time. “They restore the prisoners’ dignity and humanity without diminishing their agony or the injustice of their situation.” Smith argued that the paintings “hold art and politics in balance, creating the needed buffer to help us face the unbearable and maintain some hope.”

Fernando Botero, Abu Ghraib 43, 2005, Courtesy Marlborough Gallery

Botero was married three times in his life, and he and his third wife, the Greek artist Sophia Vari, remained together from their marriage in 1978 until her death this past May. He is survived by his three children from his first marriage and many grandchildren. In 2000, the Botero Museum opened in Bogotá, which contains over a hundred works by the artist as well as scores of works from his personal collection.