This work is accompanied by a photo certificate of authenticity signed by the artist.
With wit and whimsy, astute focus and dogged dedication to his own idiosyncratic artistic principles for nearly seven decades, Fernando Botero has created an immediately recognizable body of work that has made him an almost universal icon. Fêted the world over for his formidable figures who flaunt their voluptuous curves, Botero is a keen observer of the human spirit and an insatiable student of art history.
From Jan Van Eyck and Velázquez to Ingres and Manet, the European canon of art history has always been a rich source of inspiration for Botero. As a young aspiring artist, he traveled to Europe in the 1950s where he passionately studied first-hand Italy's Renaissance frescoes, Spain’s Golden Age masters and France's turn-of-the-century School of Paris. This early education spurred Botero’s life-long interest in critically re-interpreting iconic paintings by the doyens of western art. For Botero, engaging with these formidable artistic precedents provided a gateway to true originality, as he explained, “You can take the same subject and create a totally different painting. That's where real originality lies, in taking something that's already been done by someone and doing it differently. The important thing for me is to take images that are so well known that they’ve almost become part of popular culture, and then do something different with them. Sometimes it is that I am deeply interested in understanding a painting, its technique and the spirit behind it." 1
This philosophy has led Botero to take on some of art history’s greatest hits, including his own signature versions of the Mona Lisa, Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. In addition to reinterpreting specific paintings, Botero has also reimagined popular subjects that have intrigued artists for centuries. In The Card Players, Botero addresses the theme of the cardsharp who has appeared in paintings from the Renaissance to the present day. Perhaps the most famous card player paintings are those by Paul Cézanne. While the art-historically erudite Botero is surely aware of the Cézanne series, his own musings on the subject, of which there are just a handful of examples, are more akin to the droll renderings of such artists as Caravaggio or Georges de La Tour. In lieu of Cézanne’s gravitas, there is a joie de vivre that pervades Botero’s card player scenes.
In the present work, two men in suits appear to be winning a game of strip poker against their very naked opponents, who we can assume, based on the entirety of Botero’s oeuvre, to be well-coiffed sex workers. Behind them, the matronly madame of the house plies her customers with spirits. To her left, a door opens and a red curtain is pulled back, giving the impression that we are privy to a backstage view, while just beyond this private room a more public spectacle plays out. The theatricality of the revealing red curtain is a recurrent motif not only in Botero’s paintings, but in many artists’ works, Cézanne’s The Card Players being just one of innumerable examples.
Botero’s composition is not unlike Georges de La Tour’s, The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds, in which a maidservant passes a glass of wine and a furtive glance to a woman we know to be a courtesan by her low-cut bodice, while the cheat across from her flashes the viewer his cards, and the dupe to the right remains oblivious. While La Tour’s work can be interpreted as a morality play against the indulgences of wine, women and gambling, Botero’s The Card Players, where no one is cast as the victim, seems to revel in loose morals. Indeed, everyone partakes in chicanery; the woman at right sits on a card while two others are tossed on the floor behind her. She surreptitiously slides a card to her female counterpart, yet so does the man at left who also hides one in his pocket. Or, is he passing a card to the viewer, luring us into his shenanigans? The two men exchange sidelong glances that seem to indicate comradery in their questionable gamesmanship, but that sleight of hand by the gentleman at left suggests otherwise.
As we see in all of Botero’s work, these characters are types rather than individuals, yet they are drawn from the specificity of the artist’s native Medellín, Colombia. Botero has often recounted Medellín’s enduring influence on his work; indeed, more than a half-century after moving away, the city’s people, bordellos, cobblestone streets, colonial architecture and mountainous landscapes still populate his paintings. In The Card Players, Botero recalls Medellín’s red light district, which fascinated him as a young, aspiring artist, and served as a rich trove of character studies, much like the Parisian brothels that captivated Toulouse-Lautrec, among others in the nineteenth century. A mélange of lived, personal experience, rooted in the specificity of place, as well as a storied lineage of art historical precedents, The Card Players exemplifies Botero’s skill at seamlessly integrating high art with popular culture, creating an enchanting image that reveals, to use the artist’s words, “real originality.”