Prolific and widely celebrated Colombian artist Fernando Botero died this morning, September 15, in Monaco due to complications from pneumonia. He was 91. Known for his trademark “Boterismo” style of representing the figure in voluminous proportions, Botero was recognized as an icon both in the Latin American art sphere and internationally. Botero’s daughter Lina notified Colombian radio station Caracol of the artist’s death this morning, which was later confirmed by Art of the World Gallery in Houston, Texas.
The artist was one of three boys born to David Botero, a traveling salesman, and Flora Angulo de Botero, a seamstress, in Medellín, Colombia. Botero’s father passed away suddenly due to a heart attack when he was only four years old, leaving his mother and uncle working together to raise him and his two brothers. His uncle enrolled him in a matador (bullfighting) school at the age of 12, which was profoundly influential for his early art practice. Botero later began illustrating for the Sunday editions of the local newspaper El Colombiano at the age of 16, using his earnings to attend high school before moving to the capital city of Bogotá after graduating.
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Botero began exhibiting in 1948 while continuing his work as a newspaper illustrator, securing his first solo show in 1951. In 1952, the artist won second place in the Ninth National Salon of Artists and used his prize winnings to enroll in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. The artist moved from Spain to Florence and eventually Paris from 1953 to 1955 before ultimately shifting to Mexico in the interest of studying the work of Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco.
After a brief teaching stint in Bogotá, the artist moved to New York in 1960, where he began to develop his signature style of voluminous figuration. His distinctively round imagery began to garner interest from collectors and critics when Museum of Modern Art curator Dorothy Miller purchased his plump rendition of the Mona Lisa in 1961, against the current of Abstract Expressionism that was flowing vigorously at the time.
The plumpness that stands out in Botero’s work was not a commentary on fat people, but rather the artist’s appreciation for the sensuality of curvature and form. He approached all of his subject matter in this way, rendering objects, food, wildlife, and people ranging from sex workers to religious figures to royalty with the same inflated appearance that lent itself to a form of detail-oriented monumentalism with a touch of humor.
“I started to paint these volumetric figures when I was 17,” Botero shared in a very recent interview with the Desert Botanical Garden. “Then, of course, when I was in Europe, especially in Italy, I rationalized the importance of volume because I saw that all Italian painters like Michelangelo, Raphael, Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca made a celebration of volume. And they did it to exalt the sensuality of the subject, to exalt the form and color; everything in those paintings was a celebration.”
Botero’s work ranged from reinterpretations of Old Masters to renderings of Colombian culture and society, current events, and political satire. He set aside painting in favor of sculptural exploration during the ’70s, bringing the soft curvatures of “Boterismo” to life through a variety of cast bronze works, many of which are on public display internationally.
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden held a retrospective for Botero in 1979 featuring over 65 works sourced from over 40 museums and galleries as well as the artist’s own stores, indicating his immense success after years of being misunderstood in spite of his loyalty to “Boterismo.”
Between the ’80s and ’90s, Botero was living and working between New York, Paris, and Monte Carlo while making frequent visits to Bogotá. Disturbed by the violence and unrest affecting Colombia amidst the growing drug trafficking market, Botero turned back to painting more political content in hopes that his work would “be a testimonial to a terrible moment, a time of insanity in this country,” as he told the New York Times in 2004.
Botero continued to exhibit internationally during the 2000s through 2010s and donated an enormous portion of his own artwork as well as works from his private collections to Colombia. The artist was celebrated in major retrospectives in museums across the world, and was represented by New York’s Opera Gallery and Art of the World Gallery.
“The directors and owners of the gallery, Liliana Molina and Mauricio Vallejo, have represented the artist Fernando Botero and been dear friends of his for many years, so this loss has been heavily felt in our gallery today,” a spokesperson for Art of the World said to Hyperallergic.
Alongside public displays of his sculptures, Botero will be celebrated in an exhibition at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, in collaboration with the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California, from October 7 through the end of March 2024.