In this article:
- Fernando Botero, a native of Medellin, Colombia, is one of the most renowned Latin American artists of all time.
- His paintings often depict people, animals, and things in a way that might be described as “fat” or “chubby.”
- Inspired by the Italian and Spanish masters, Botero is concerned with bringing volume back into a prominent role in artistic expression by exaggerating the volume of his subjects.
- The subjects of Botero’s works include Pablo Escobar, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Colombian street life, brothels, religious and political leaders, and much more.
In Europe and North America, when we think of high art, we typically imagine iconic works like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, or Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night.
We don’t typically imagine cartoonish images of fat people in funny positions. And, when you look at the works of esteemed Colombian artist Fernando Botero, that’s most often what you’ll see.
Botero’s distinctive style is rooted in the inspirations that he drew from other well-known artists during his early years as a painter.
He describes himself as the most Colombian of all Colombian artists, despite the fact that he only spends one month per year in Colombia and he has had a rather tumultuous relationship with his own country.
Regardless, Botero has become one of the most prominent Latin American artists of all time over the course of his career. And, at 89 years old, he’s still presenting new works and exhibitions today.
During my recent trip to Medellin, Colombia, I had the opportunity to visit the Museo de Antioquia. The plaza around the museum is scattered with massive statues sculpted by Fernando Botero.
For a small fee, you can enter the museum to see one of the largest collections of Fernando Botero’s works in the world, most of which were donated by the artist himself.
As you stroll through the galleries, you can see paintings of figures, ranging from priests to Pablo Escobar and bulls to bananas, all of them depicted as particularly chubby. So, I got to wondering: why does Fernando Botero choose to portray everyone and everything as fat?
The Early Life of Fernando Botero
Fernando Botero Angulo was born in April of 1932 in Medellin, Colombia. Fernando’s father was a traveling salesman who rode around on horseback. Unfortunately, his father died of a heart attack when Fernando was only four years old.
After that, Fernando’s uncle took on a major role in his upbringing.
In 1944, Fernando’s uncle enrolled him in matador school for two years. But his true passion had always been art. Still, those years spent as a bullfighter would eventually serve as inspiration for some of his greatest works.
Growing up in Medellin, Fernando Botero was also heavily influenced by pre-Columbian art, Spanish colonial art, Baroque architecture, and the Medellin street life.
In 1948, at the age of 16, Botero got his first big break as an artist when he got his illustrations published in El Colombiano, one of the most prominent newspapers in Medellin.
That same year, Botero’s works were exhibited alongside the works of other local artists. In the next few years, he would travel between Bogota, Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris, studying the works of art displayed in the museums of each of these cities.
Fernando Botero’s Signature Style
While many of Fernando Botero’s works depict still-lifes and landscapes, the majority of his career has been spent portraying situational portraits, meaning that Botero depicts people in imagined scenarios.
This style (which has become known as “Boterismo”) was largely influenced by the works of Spanish painter Diego Velazquez, another Spaniard named Francisco de Goya, and Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.
However, unlike the paintings of his idols, the people in Botero’s works are not presented as they actually are, but rather as exaggeratedly “fat” or voluminous.
Throughout the 1950s, Fernando Botero experimented with proportion, size, and volume. But, it wasn’t until he moved to New York City in 1960 that he developed his signature style.
Interestingly, this was the same year that Fernando divorced Gloria Zea, his wife and the mother of his three children.
In the works that Fernando Botero created in New York City, he drew heavily from the styles of the artists he was inspired by as a youth, painting and drawing portraits of political and religious figures similar to the works of de Goya and Velazquez.
However, the “chubby” depictions of these people may serve as a form of satire, perhaps suggesting inflated egos to match their inflated bodies. These portraits often had a strange and disturbing quality to them, such as eyes looking off in opposite directions.
During this period, Botero also painted brothels and nudes in his signature “fat” style, perhaps to bring a comic quality to these sexual situations.
The scenes in these paintings were often chaotic and messy with cigarette butts strewn across the floor and flies circling around the room. One of his most famous paintings in this style was House Mariduque, painted in 1970.
In 1973, Fernando Botero returned to Paris and started sculpting as well as working on canvas. His larger-than-life sculptures were often cast in bronze or carved out of Carrara marble. And, of course, the figures depicted in these sculptures were fat and full.
Later in his career, Botero would take on political issues as his subjects. For instance, he did a series of paintings about the death of Pablo Escobar and about the torture of Iraqi prisoners by United States soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison.
Why Are All of His Subjects Fat?
To be clear, Fernando Botero doesn’t just paint human beings with inflated volume. He also depicts animals like birds, cats, and bulls with the same inflated proportions.
In fact, in many of his still-life works, he even depicts things like knives, forks, kettles, vegetables, and fruits with those same inflated proportions. That begs the question: why did he choose to depict the world with such fatness?
In the words of the artist, “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.”
“There is a great use of volume, especially in Italian painting, which is volumetric. And they did it to exalt the sensuality of the subject, to exalt the form and color; everything in those paintings was a celebration. Because art is always an exaggeration; the painter exaggerates the color or the shape or exaggerates the line. There is always an exaggeration.”
Fernando Botero goes on to emphasize the importance of volume in art, saying, “I think the volume is a very neglected and forgotten element in art.”
“The great art in the past started with Giotto, who introduced volume again (because the Greeks knew how to do the illusion of space and volume on a flat surface). It was forgotten during the Middle Ages, and then, in the fourteenth century, Giotto rediscovered this ability, this possibility. And, from then on, until almost the twentieth century, every painter expresses volume and space more or less.”
So, the chubby figures in the works of Fernando Botero seem to be less about any sort of satire or comedy and more about the heightening of the form of his subjects.
Indeed, when you look at one of his portraits, you immediately notice every curve in the body of the subject. The people depicted dominate the canvas with their voluminous bodies in a way that is nothing less than hyper-dramatic.
The world of Botero is not just fat. It’s a world of exaggeration, sensuality, and dramatized form.