By the mid-1960s, Fernando Botero’s unique aesthetic vision had fully materialized. Forging an oeuvre informed by art historical influences ranging from the great Italian and Spanish Old Masters to the French Impressionists, Botero had achieved a uniquely personal solution to contemporary figurative painting: one that embodied both whimsy and social-critique. It thus became apparent early-on that Botero would resist complying with the prevailing aesthetic currents of American Abstract Expressionism and European Post-War avant-garde—both arguably more acceptable paths for an ambitious young artist seeking recognition.
Botero’s narrative scenes of everyday, comical hyperbole are populated by his immediately identifiable voluminous characters. Moreover, his paintings maintain a pivotal element of didacticism, as he said: “[they] function within free, imaginative, innovative parameters...it is not a matter of creating the kind of beauty that fits into the classical canons. The purpose, rather, is to reach a stage at which it has become possible to surprise and be surprised” (Carlos Fuentes, Botero: Women, New York 2003, n.p.). His singular artistic production garnered him international critical acclaim by this time as well. In 1958, Botero received the Guggenheim International award, he participated in both the 29th Venice Biennale and in the 5th Bienal of São Paulo in 1958 and 1959 respectively, and in 1961 the Museum of Modern Art, New York acquired his famed painting Mona Lisa, Age 12—the only figurative painting acquired by MoMA that year. Botero’s painting, particularly of this period, of his residency in New York, can be understood both in the context of the greater Western canon and as part of a more specific lineage of “fiercely loony American figure painting—Willem de Kooning’s grinning women, Philip Guston’s ground-meat guys…and the recent and updated resurgence of that tradition in the work of John Currin, Glenn Brown, Dana Schutz, and others” (Holland Cotter, “A Mind Where Picasso Meets Looney Tunes,” New York Times, 27 January 2011, n.p.). The direct influence of Botero’s achievements both in treatment of the figure and satirical tone are echoed in the work of John Currin, whose gleaming surfaces and subtly, unsettlingly contorted bodies also examine the emotive impact of distortion.
Over the course of the first half of the 1960s, Botero continually moved between Europe, Colombia and New York. By this time, his color shows a progression toward increasingly subtle tonalities, and his forms become simplified, rounder and effulgent. “The plastic quality of his work, the monumentality of forms, and the successful integration of form and color, underlie the impact of his work, supplying its potency and its conviction” (Tracy Atkinson, Botero, Munich 1970, p. 11). Throughout this period, he revisited and revised some of the most famous works of the Western canon, including Peter Paul Rubens’s portraits of his first wife Isabella Brant and, as in the present work, of his second wife Hélène Fourment: “a transformation into his own terms of a well-known portrait of the wife of the 17th century Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens...The form which the title takes, “with the inappropriately formal Mrs., is as ingenuously innocent as the visual statement” (Ibid., p. 11). Between 1962 and 1964, Botero painted no less than eight portraits of Mrs. Rubens—the first, painted in 1962 can be found in the permanent collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. The present work, Mrs. Rubens #3, is the largest and the most graciously executed work of this series to come to auction. Botero has respected the original composition by Rubens: the lovely Hélène is wearing a low-cut dress looking at the eyes of the viewer, feathered hat, pearl earrings, hands crossed. Unlike in the Rubens composition, Hélène occupies the totality of the canvas, charming and assertive in this voluminous incarnation.