March 24, 1980 12:00 PM

Athough he has earned an international reputation—and a robust annual income—painting and sculpting fat people, Colombian artist Fernando Botero prefers his flesh-and-blood ladies to be lean. Life need not imitate art, he maintains: “I don’t want to sleep with a Botero!”

No wonder. Some of the pneumatic politicians, musicians, prostitutes and Madonnas in his paintings rival the Goodyear blimp. This week Texans will get a chance to see for themselves, as the first retrospective of Botero’s work to be shown in the U.S. (58 paintings, eight sculptures) moves to the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi after a two-month stay at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum.

Botero, 47, has been called one of the most important figurative artists of the 20th century. He has also suffered some scalding put-downs. His first one-man show in New York in 1962 provoked critics to denounce his work as a collection of “caricatures” and “a monument to stupidity.” Not one painting was sold.

Botero rejects the notion that he is an artistic lightweight. “All the great painters had this roundness: Michelangelo, Botticelli. If I make an orange, I make it exist in a very intense way. It is my way of expressing sensuality.” Botero thinks big. One of his small canvases will measure six feet by six feet, a large one will be twice that size. He commands anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000 for a painting and up to $70,000 for a sculpture that may tower seven feet and weigh 1,500 pounds. The demand for Boteros is so great that each piece or painting is sold before his one-man shows. He completes 30 to 35 works a year.

Botero came by his personal and artistic independence the hard way. His father, a salesman who traveled by mule through the Colombian countryside, died when Fernando was 3 and left the family destitute in the city of Medellín. At 15, Botero was selling watercolors, and he went on to become the first high school graduate in his family.

During the 1950s he began exhibiting in Bogotá and became fascinated by pre-Columbian art. For a time he lived in the port town of Tolú, where he painted on bed sheets. Botero moved on to study in Florence and Madrid, but returned to Bogotá in 1955 to marry 18-year-old Gloria Zea. They settled in Mexico City, where he won artistic recognition. They had three children—Fernando, 23, is a politician in Bogotá, Juan Carlos, 19, is in school there and Lina, 20, studies acting in Boston.

By 1960 Botero was divorced and living in a small studio in New York’s Greenwich Village. He had arrived in the U.S. in the heyday of Abstract Expressionist art and often “felt like a leper.” Still, connoisseurs like Joseph Hirshhorn bought his works. Botero’s first break came with a 1963 exhibition of his Mona Lisa, Age Twelve at the Museum of Modern Art, which coincided with the exhibition of the original Mona at the Met.

Moving on again in 1973, with a second wife, Cecilia Zambrano, and a young son, Pedro, Botero settled in Paris. His career nearly ended in a car accident in Spain, which badly injured his hands and killed his son. Pedro has been immortalized in eight portraits by his father. In 1975 Fernando and Cecilia were divorced.

These days Botero can be found in his Left Bank studio seven days a week. But his evenings are devoted to “trying to forget I am a painter”: reading, relaxing with Sophia Vari, a svelte Greek sculptress, or presiding over small dinner parties at his seven-room apartment on the Ile de la Cité.

“My work is a self-portrait of my mind, a prism of my convictions,” Botero proclaims. “People say, ‘What a discipline, painting so much.’ I say, ‘No, I love it.’ Nothing amuses me as much as my work. To have discipline would be not to paint.”

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