"The family is the theme par excellence. I like it because the complex composition admits surprise solutions. There is a beautiful tradition of family portraits in the history of art".
Fernando Botero in "From the Inside Out: An Interview with Fernando Botero by Ana Maria Escallón" Rizzoli, New York, 1997, p. 36
Fernando Botero settles in New York in 1960. His bold figurative paintings went against the current of Abstract Expressionism and his first show received harsh reviews. However, it did not take long for the Museum of Modern art to take notice. That same year, Dorothy Miller paid the artist a visit and soon after, Mona Lisa, Age Twelve (1959) was acquired by the Museum. It was the only non-abstract acquisition the museum made that year. By 1964, Botero's style had matured. One of the most significant paintings from this period and perhaps one of the most indicative of this maturity in style is the artist's rendering of The Pinzón Family from 1964 (fig. 1). Following the old master tradition of portraiture that he had studied closely during his time in Italy and Spain, he created his first family scene. But the Pinzon's are not royalty; they are a middle-class Colombian family. In fact, Botero's roots are never too far away from his sitters. The flavor of everyday life in his portraits can quickly be traced to his origins, his memories, and his experiences.
The Pinzón Family is the first of a series of family scenes that Botero continues to paint throughout his career. The Presidential Family (fig. 2) from 1967 is another ambitious example of this genre. In this case, the middle-class family is replaced by a politically charged motif. A hilly landscape, perhaps the Andes, and the smoking mouth of a volcano replace the billowy trees that had framed the Pinzón Family portrait. It is starker scene with satire playing a key role in this "political" family portrait. Together with Mona Lisa, Age Twelve, this painting later found a home in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
By 1972, Botero is very much an international man, living between Paris, New York and Colombia. The birth of his fourth son, Pedro, in 1970 marks an important point in his life and young Pedro becomes a recurring figure in the artist's work during this time. A Family is a prime example of Botero's continued interest and exploration of the Old Masters and 19th century tradition of state portraits. Unlike the The Presidential Family from 1964 where the artist has attributed certain Latin American qualities to the characters and the atmosphere in this political portrait, our 1972 portrait of A Family presents itself with a certain ambiguity to the nature of the characters, their origins and the atmosphere where they pose. At first glance, this family could be any family. This is a modern family of sorts, as the mother stands and the father sits with a child at each of side. They are posing but not yet ready for the picture, the toddler is impatient and looks towards the mother, away from the viewer. Like the family portraits of Goya, this family poses, together, for posterity. Following the style of 19th century family portraiture, there is a ubiquitous continuity between the figures. Starting with the boy sitting on his father's lap and ending with the toddler clinging to his mother's skirt, there is an interconnectedness between the figures in this portrait. It's an effective compositional tool borrowed from the Old masters' portraiture.
Botero's characters often express little emotion—this family scene is not unlike those. The characters in this family smile timidly, barely. They do not stare back at the viewer. Their glances drift off, never making eye contact with the viewer. The only character that looks out is the father who stares back intently, perhaps asserting his power and role in this family.
The theme of the middle-class family, dressed in their Sunday-best, becomes once again the motif in this beautifully rendered painting. The billowy trees that served as the backdrop for The Pinzón Family are also present here. But they are sparse, and in between the trees branches we can glimpse a crowded and populated city. Further back, the Andes Mountains from the Presidential Family re-appear, and so does the smoking volcano seen on the far right. One of the few objects that adorn this family is the banana or perhaps a plantain held by the oldest daughter in this family. This iconic tropical fruit will recur as the subject of many future canvases in the form of rich still lifes often afflicted by swirling flies. Perhaps this family is not too far away from Botero's Colombia after all.
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