What you see: Circus People, a 2007 painting by Fernando Botero. Christie’s estimates it at $1.5 million to $2.5 million.
Who is Fernando Botero? Born in Medellin, Colombia, Botero is a sculptor and painter. He might be better known for the former, as several of his bronzes have been installed outdoors in major cities. Botero invariably depicts people and animals with greater size and heft than you might expect–an artistic choice that has become his visual signature. During his long career, he has tackled sober, dark subjects such as the abuses of Abu Ghraib and the death of drug dealer Pablo Escobar, as well as more innocuous images of couples dancing and riffs on Old Masters. Botero is 86.
The expert: Virgilio Garza, head of Latin American art for Christie’s.
Botero has created about 120 circus-themed paintings. Where does Circus People rank among those images? This is one of the most complete in the sense that it has a circus. It reminds me of his very sought-after family groupings. It could be seen as a multi-character painting by Botero. The narrative is about performers in a circus who are not performing, but at the same time, they are performing. The sword swallower is swallowing a sword. The clown is playing with a baton. The snake charmer has a snake. Botero is saying they’re always performing whether they’re on stage or not.
Is Botero still painting and drawing circus scenes, or has he stopped? The whole Botero series started around 2006, from his visit to a small seaside village in Mexico where there was a very simple traveling circus. He started a series. Many 20th century artists have created works about the circus–Picasso, Calder. I think the Botero circus series is ongoing.
Is the painting based on real people who Botero saw, or does it show people who he invented after he was inspired by what he saw? Botero works with types. I think he never really depicts a specific person. They’re more sort of types in terms of the circus. They’re typed by profession–the sword swallower, the clown. Looking at his work in general, it’s consistent with the idea that he’s interested in types.
How does Botero’s circus series match up to other series of his? Are collectors particularly interested in his circus scenes? There’s demand for them, yes. Botero in general is sought-after. He’s a very popular artist globally and I think the circus is universally understood as a cultural activity. With his bullfighting series, some collectors look for his bullfighting pictures. Some are not attracted to bullfighting. It’s not for everybody. But the circus is universally understood. It’s very ingrained in the culture of Latin America, the U.S., Europe. It’s a family entertainment that people feel nostalgic about.
This painting is 63 1/2 inches by 75 1/8 inches. Is that unusually large for Botero? Or is this a typical painting size for him? No. We don’t see large paintings like this all the time, but he as an artist benefits from a larger scale, and his sculptures do, too.
Is it unusually large for a work from the circus series? The ones that have come up for auction have been much smaller. This work is very, very emblematic of the series. I think it is super-charming. I love the colors and the scale.
Did Botero use brighter colors than he normally would when painting circus images? It’s pretty consistent with other works from his mature style. It’s not unusual in that sense.
The painting is fresh to market–it’s making its auction debut. How important is that, considering that the works in Botero’s circus series are relatively recent, and will likely be fresh to market? It’s always desirable to have things that have never been at auction. It’s desirable if it’s old or if it’s new. In terms of auction sales, we like fresh-to-market works because there are new things to say. We try to present Botero and his circus works in an essay accompanying the painting. As an auction house, we try to explain where it sits within his broader production, and how special it is. About this particular sale–we have fantastic material by Botero from the late 1950s to the new millennium. We have a Mona Lisa from 1959 that’s wonderful. We have sculptures from the 1980s to more recent works. We have an Aurora painting from the 1990s that’s very beautiful. He’s very well-represented.
But isn’t that true of all of Christie’s Latin American art auctions? You’d think, but demand for his sculpture keeps rising and they’re very hard to get. We’re fortunate to have a nice group but you’re going to see them get scarce. He’s not fabricating new sculptures anymore as far as we know. What is out there is out there.
Are collectors more interested in his sculptures than his paintings? Not really. I wouldn’t say they’re more desirable. There’s a healthy market for both. I would say Botero is better known for his sculpture because many are outdoors, and the public is attuned to them.
Let’s talk about the size of Botero subjects. We see a circus here, but there is no fat lady, and none of the people are, technically speaking, fat. Botero has always been interested in the idea of volume, from early on. It started with the mandolin. He painted a round musical instrument, and by making the [sound] hole smaller, the scale grew. He started experimenting with variations of scale. Eventually the figures started to become bigger in terms of occupying more space. Botero created a universe very much his own. When he started to translate them to three dimensions with sculpture, by making them rounder and bigger, he created a universe where characters exist and assert themselves by their physicality.
What factors shaped the $1.5 million to $2.5 million estimate for Circus People? We think this is consistent with important paintings in the past in terms of scale, quality, and what it represents. Most of his important paintings are paintings of groupings. A family of bullfighters did very well many years ago. I think the picture has the potential to sell among the top ten paintings by the artist.
Why will this painting stick in your memory? It’s a beautiful painting. It’s vibrant, and at a very nice scale. It’s joyful, full of energy. It’s a great painting.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
Also see this May 2018 Christie’s piece on 10 things to know about Fernando Botero.
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