When Fernando Botero was 14 years old and living with his family in Medellín, Colombia, he wanted to be a bullfighter. He enrolled in a school for bullfighters and began making watercolors of them.
One day he went into a store in Medellín that sold tickets to the bullfights. “I showed the owner six of my drawings and said to him, ‘Why don’t you sell them?’” Botero told me recently in an interview at his Manhattan apartment.
“He took the six drawings and put them on display. A few days later, I went in and saw he had only five. He had sold one, and he gave me two pesos, which was about two dollars. I was so excited that I ran home to tell my brother, but on the way I lost the money. My first sale, and I lost it.”
Botero has since become one of the world’s wealthiest artists. His paintings and sculptures sell for millions of dollars and are in the collections of more than 50 museums. In the last five years, he has had exhibitions at museums and galleries in Hungary, Turkey, Korea, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Colombia, Mexico, England, Portugal, and the United States. He spends much of the year in Monaco, but he also has homes in Paris and Colombia, Pietrasanta, Italy, and on the island of Evia, off the coast of Greece.
Botero, who is 80, was in New York recently for his exhibition at Marlborough Gallery, which has represented him since 1969.
“Some people love my work, some people hate it,” he said. “You can’t be liked by everybody. There has been opposition in some places. I represent the opposite of what is happening in art today. But I don’t complain. It hasn’t hurt my career. I’m happy to have the success I have had.”
Some of the “opposition” complaints have been about his oversize figures—“strange monumentality” was one critic’s comment. Others have praised his allegiance to Renaissance classicism “with a touch of social commentary and wit.”
“In the 1960s, I did portraits of the military juntas in South America,” Botero said. “I did paintings of the drug violence in Colombia, and in 2005 I did about 80 paintings and drawings of the prisoner abuses by American guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.”
When Botero was 16, he attended a Catholic school in Medellín and worked as an illustrator for the literary section of a local newspaper. “I wrote an article about Picasso and Cubism, and the newspaper published it,” he said. “In my article I wrote, more or less, that the destruction of forms in Cubism reflected the destruction of individualism in modern society. That was a kind of Marxist concept that I am sure I read someplace and that sounded very intellectual to me.
“The result was that I was expelled from school in front of everybody. 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.”
At 19, Botero won a $7,000 national art prize in Colombia and went to Europe. “I was living in Madrid on a dollar a day,” he said. “That’s what my room and three meals a day cost me. I was in Europe for nearly three years on the $7,000. One night, I was walking and passed a bookshop that had a book in the window on the Italian Renaissance by Lionello Venturi.” The book was open to a reproduction of Piero della Francesca’s The Queen of Sheba Adoring the Holy Wood, one of the series of frescoes on The Legend of the True Cross in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, Italy.
“The frescoes opened my eyes, and Piero changed my life,” Botero said. “I saw it and thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe it. I had never heard of Piero. The next day, I bought the book. That began my obsession with Italian art—the sensuality, the voluptuousness of the forms. And then I went to Italy to look at the work of Masaccio and Mantegna and Uccello and Veneziano and Michelangelo and all the others.”
Ten years ago, Botero and his wife, the sculptor and jewelry designer Sophia Vari, made a trip to see all of the Piero frescoes in Italy. They went to Arezzo, Urbino, and Monterchi, where they saw the little chapel with the famous Madonna del Parto.
Botero first came to New York in 1960. “I had $200 in my pocket,” he said. “I couldn’t get a gallery. There was a gallery near the Museum of Modern Art. One day the dealer came to my studio. A lot of my drawings were on the table. He said, ‘I’ll give you ten dollars a drawing.’ We started counting. There were 70 drawings, so he paid me $700. It was a fortune for me at the time.”
Botero collected art years ago and then gave away most of it. In 2000, he donated hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art to two museums in Colombia: the Botero Museum in Bogotá, which received about 150 of his paintings and sculptures, as well as 90 works by Picasso, Miró, Braque, Chagall, Calder, Giacometti, and a number of Impressionists; and the Museo de Antioquia, which was given about 150 of his works and about 40 paintings by German, Spanish, and American artists, including Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, and Robert Rauschenberg.
The Museo de Antioquia is named for the province of which Medellín, where Botero was born, is the capital. The city also cleared adjacent land for a sculpture park with 25 Botero sculptures as part of a campaign to revitalize the center of Medellín.
“My father was a traveling salesman,” Botero said. “He died when I was five. He sold clothes and other things and he traveled on a mule. My mother was a seamstress. When I told my mother that I wanted to be an artist, she said, ‘You’re going to die of hunger.’”
Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.