Overdoing Rubens: The Plump World of Fernando Botero
26 januari 2022 
31 min. read

Overdoing Rubens: The Plump World of Fernando Botero

Surfing the net, you've probably seen the "y tho" meme featuring a "plump kid dressed in yellow." Actually, as reads the title of the painting, the mysterious kid is a reinterpretation of Raphael's Pope Leo X (or his portrait made by Rubens), though, the statue of Leo X in the church of Santa Maria in Rome seems to be the closest prototype. The author of this amusing picture is the Colombian figurative artist and sculptor Fernando Botero (b. 1932). His plump characters with round heads resemble those of Vasko Lipovac's paintings and sculptures (you can check out our articles on them!).

 Y tho” meme; right: Pope Leo X (after Raphael

Fig. 1. Left: “Y tho” meme; right: Pope Leo X (after Raphael), 1964 (wikiart.org)

 Raphael's Portrait of Leo X with cardinals

Fig. 2. Left: Raphael's Portrait of Leo X with cardinals, 1520; center: Portrait of Leo X by Rubens, 17th century; right: Statue of Leo X in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome (Wikipedia.org)

 Fernando Botero, Self-portrait

Fig. 3. Fernando Botero, Self-portrait (wikiart.org)

Early Years and Career

Fernando Botero was born in a family of a salesman and a seamstress. His father died of a heart attack when Fernando was four. Growing up in Medellin, Colombia, Botero got inspiration from the local architecture. At sixteen, he began publishing illustrations in the supplement of El Colombiano. In 1948, his paintings were initially exhibited in a group show. Two years later, Botero's first solo exhibition happened. In the 1950s, the artist traveled to Barcelona and Paris. Attending Louvre, he studied works of Renaissance and Baroque masters that would become a basis for his pictures. In 1958, the artist took the first prize of the Salon of Colombian Artists. In the 1970s, he manifested himself as a sculptor. Botero's chubby cats can be seen on the streets of Barcelona, Venice, and other cities. Throughout his artistic career, Botero has had more than 50 exhibitions worldwide. He created his own recognizable manner known as "boterismo."

 Left: Torso, 1988  right: Rubens, Susanna and the Elders

Fig. 4. Left: Torso, 1988 (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com); right: Rubens, Susanna and the Elders, 1607-1608 (wikiart.org)

 fernando botero Adam and Eve

Fig. 5. Left: Adam and Eve (Adam), 1968; right: Adam and Eve (Eve), 1968 (wikiart.org)

 fernando botero Eve

Fig. 6. Eve (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

 fernando botero Dance

Fig. 7. Dance (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

 fernando botero Lovers

Fig. 8. Lovers (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

 lovers fernando botero

Fig. 9. Lovers (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

 card player fernando botero

Fig. 10. Card player (wikiart.org)

 fernando botero lovers painting

Fig. 11. Lovers (wikiart.org)

Anti-Shunga

Botero doesn't explain how he came to the idea of "large people." He states that elaboration of the style was unconscious: "An artist is attracted to certain kinds of form without knowing why. You adopt a position intuitively; only later do you attempt to rationalize or even justify it" (wikipedia.org). Botero's characters, with their impressive shapes, look like an homage to old masters, such as Rubens or Titian. Watching Susanna and the Elders by Rubens, one can notice a Baroque tendency to downsize genitalia and breasts, make them less remarkable, which is opposite to the tradition of Shunga. The same trend is developed in works by Botero, where genitalia are extremely reduced but still visible.

 fernando botero Tribute to Bonnard

Fig. 12. Tribute to Bonnard, 1975 (wikiart.org)

 Tribute to Bonnard fernando botero

Fig. 13. Tribute to Bonnard, 1972 (wikiart.org)

in the bath fernando botero

Fig. 14. Woman in Bathroom (wikiart.org)

 fernando botero Woman in Bathroom

Fig. 15. Before Bath (wikiart.org)

 Before Bath Fernando Botero

Fig. 16. In the Shower (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

 Before Bath Fernando Botero

Fig. 17. Left: Woman Abducted by the Demon, 1979 (wikiart.org); right: Raijin Raping a Bathing Woman, (c.1840), an unknown member of the Utagawa school.

Raijin's Relative

Speaking of the Shunga tradition, we can’t but mention Botero's Woman Abducted by the Demon (1979). Placed in a row with all his bathing Venuses (maybe, the lady was abducted right after taking a bath?), this 'laughing' picture evokes in memory of a Shunga devotee one famous piece where the thunder god Raijin attempts to rape a chubby lady.

 botero The Venus of Lespugue

Fig. 18. Left: The Venus of Lespugue dated to between 26,000 and 24,000 years ago; right: Venus figurine of Kostenki (Wikipedia.org)

 Venus Fernando Botero painting

Fig. 19. Venus (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

 fernando botero Venus with Cupid

Fig. 20. Venus with Cupid (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

 fernando botero Venus with a Mirror

Fig. 21. Venus with a Mirror (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

Venus Figurine

Another association that comes to mind when we look at these large people, majorly females, is the Upper Paleolithic statuettes of women (Fig. 18). Their massive legs and backsides resemble those of Botero's Venuses, though the ancient figurines are endowed with huge breasts and vulvas, which may symbolize their connection to the cult of fertility.

 fernando botero The House of Amanda Ramirez

Fig. 22. The House of Amanda Ramirez (wikiart.org)

Censored Copulation

Interestingly, Botero at least once depicts copulation but hides it behind other figures on the front. The House of Amanda Ramirez (Fig. 22) demonstrates to us a room of a brothel with a courtesan on a man's shoulder and a copulating pair in the background. There's probably a method in depicting lovers. Botero shows them as equal to each other in shape and size or represents a woman as a big and mother-like figure and a man as her kid that can hide in the curves of her body (Fig. 23, 24). This way, it seems, he depicts different stages of relationships: in the beginning, both partners are on the same level, but gradually, living in conditions of household matriarchy, the woman becomes a mother to her beloved one. In The House of Amanda Ramirez, women are smaller than male clients, which can be explained by their dependent position.

 lovers fernando botero art

Fig. 23. Lovers (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

 fernando botero Woman Stapling Her Bra

Fig. 24. Woman Stapling Her Bra (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

 The Cascade Fernando Botero

Fig. 25. The Cascade (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

 fernando botero Mother and Child

Fig. 26. Mother and Child (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

 Mother with Her Child Fernando Botero

Fig. 27. Mother with Her Child (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

 Reclining Nude with Books and Pencils On Lawn fernando botero

Fig. 28. Reclining Nude with Books and Pencils On Lawn (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

 fernando botero On the Beach

Fig. 29. On the Beach (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

 fernando botero Still Life with Oranges

Fig. 30. Still Life with Oranges (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

 fernando botero The Letter

Fig. 31. The Letter (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

 Fernando Botero, After the Arnolfini Portrait

Fig. 32. Left: Fernando Botero, After the Arnolfini Portrait, 1978 (wikiart.org); right: Van Eyck The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434 (Wikipedia.org)

Cats and Oranges

To conclude, Botero's works have a soothing effect, which stems from what and how he depicts. His favorite animal is a chubby content cat (even in his parody on The Arnolfini Portrait Botero seems to replace a dog with a grey cat), and his favorite fruit is an orange, the all-time symbol of the sun, life, and prosperity. The characters of Botero's paintings radiate vitality and make us recall the times of Rubens and Titian when opulence was considered a trait of the aristocracy. Their round, spherical forms contain some inner harmony that lets the viewer understand why Hokusai depicted chubby lovers in his Shunga series.

 Melancholia Fernando Botero

Fig. 33. Melancholia (wikiart.org)

Woman with a Cat Fernando Botero

Fig. 34. Woman with a Cat (conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com)

  fernando botero cat on a roof

Fig. 35. Cat on a Roof (wikiart.org)

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Sources: Wikipedia.org; wikiart.org; conchigliadivenere.wordpress.com

About the author
Darya is a philologist who lives and works in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. She is specialized in Russian literature.
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