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Fernando Botero Dies at 91

Hailed by many as Latin America’s most famous artist, this painter and sculptor revolutionized the world of modern art

spinner image colombian artist fernando botero in his art studio with brushes and a palette in his hand
Massimo Sestini/Mondadori via Getty Images

Fernando Botero, the extraordinary Colombian painter and sculptor who revolutionized modern art with his signature style, died Sept. 15 in Monte Carlo of complications from pneumonia.

Botero’s hometown of Medellín has declared seven days of mourning for his death.

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A creator of the style known throughout the world as “Boterismo,” the artist was self-taught and developed his own aesthetics by exalting the volume of the people he represented in his paintings and sculptures. He was one of the few modern-day Latin artists whose style was immediately identified by a mass audience.

spinner image colombian artist fernando botero with his wife sophia vari in their italy home
Fernando Botero and his wife, Sophia Vari, at their home in Italy in 2001.
Pool COCHARD/MERILLON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Botero was born on April 19, 1932, in Medellín, the son of a seamstress and a traveling salesman who died when Botero was just 4 years old. As a teenager, Botero was inspired by his older brother and began producing watercolor paintings, which he sold at a store that also sold tickets for bullfights.

His interest in painting continued through his schooling, and in August 1951, Botero took advantage of the sale of some paintings to move to the coastal town of Tolú, on the Atlantic, with the idea of becoming a sort of Latin American Gaugin. It was in Tolú that the young painter came across a disturbing scene on the shore: a policeman with the conservative government transporting a liberal prisoner, bound to a stick by his hands and feet, as if he were a tiger. The terrifying experience inspired the painting “Frente al mar (By the Sea), “ which won a $7,000 prize, a veritable fortune at the time. He was only 20 years old.

Botero used the prize money to settle in Madrid, where he became disillusioned with the work of modern-day artists, and began to obsessively study the works of older masters like Goya and Velázquez. One night, while wandering the streets of Madrid, he came across a book displayed in the window of a bookstore, a volume on the Italian Renaissance. The book was opened, showcasing a reproduction of Solomon's Encounter with the Queen of Sheba, the fresco that Piero della Francesca painted in the 15th century.

“It was the most extraordinary thing I had seen in my life,” he recalled during an interview for the 2018 documentary Botero. “I was just mesmerized by that painting. I realized then that the painting was much more than I had imagined. A lot more complex, a lot more important, a lot more everything.”

The next day, Botero returned to the bookstore and bought the book. In September 1953, he traveled on a Vespa to Florence, accompanied by his friend Ricardo Iragorri. He stayed for two years in Italy, where he took classes, studied the great masters, and improved his technique. He lived in a small apartment so cold that he was forced to sleep with a coat and gloves.

But the experience helped him crystallize his very personal style.

“It was the first time I found a real zest for life,” Botero said in the documentary. “I was so happy I didn’t want to do anything but paint.”

When he ran out of money, Botero returned to Colombia. But the ambition to become internationally known prompted him to settle in New York in 1960.

“If I’m in Colombia, maybe I’d be happy to paint better than my neighbor,” he said in an interview a few years before his death. “But I wanted to paint better than everyone else.”



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The 1960s marked his internationalization, with exhibitions and constant travels between Europe, the United States and Colombia. He also became the world’s best-selling sculptor.

Tragedy changed everything on April 19, 1974, when Pedrito, his son with his second wife, died in a car crash while the family was returning from a vacation in Spain. The 4-year-old died in front of his parents of a forehead wound. Botero himself lost part of his little finger on his right hand, and for eight months doctors thought he might not be able to paint again.

The tragedy profoundly affected the artist, and Pedrito would appear in several of Botero’s later works.

In 2005, interest in Botero's work intensified thanks to a series of 78 paintings titled "Abu Ghraib," which portrayed the mistreatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison during the U.S.-Iraq war.

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One of Botero's "Man on Horseback" sculptures in Colombia.
RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images

This critical attention was also reflected in his growing commercial success. In 2022, one of his sculptures, “Hombre a caballo (Man on Horse)” broke a sales record, selling for $4.3 million at Christie's in New York. The value of the piece had increased by 135 percent compared with the first sale, made in 2016. One of three copies of this sculptures is now exhibited at the Botero Museum in Colombia, where the public can see it for free, as Botero had always wished.

Until the end, Botero donated many of his works to museums around the world. Since 1978, he had lived mostly in Paris and Italy with his partner, the Greek artist Sophia Vari. Botero is survived by three adult children he had with his first wife, Colombian Gloria Zea, who died in 2019.

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