This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist.
Fernando Botero transformed the world’s most enigmatic portrait into the guise of a young girl in his 1959 reinterpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Exchanging the future Giocanda’s somber dress for a more youthful frock, Botero depicts his subject in striped dress and crowns her hair with a pink bow. Yet, despite these childish accessories, echoes of da Vinci’s original painting reveal glimmers of her mature identity, from her chastely clasped hands to her side-ways casting eyes, and of course, her infamous smile.
Mona Lisa belongs to a wider series of works in which Botero reimagined da Vinci’s sitter as a girl, casting her in various poses, dress, and activities. This consistent exploration of a recurring theme helped the artist develop and refine his incipient style. Thus, portraying his subject as a child who has not quite grown into her features, the distorted scale of Mona Lisa reflects an early interpretation of Botero’s distinctive aesthetic of bulbous proportions. Further, although Botero would later abandon his earlier, expressionistic brushwork in favor of a smoother finish, the chromatic experimentation of Mona Lisa foreshadows his richly saturated color palette. In particular, the disjunction created by the bright bow set against an abstract background of green and red suggests the artist’s frequent use of pink hues in the cakes, fruits, tablecloths, and curtains found in many of his still life work.
Botero’s Mona Lisa paintings reserve a particularly significant role in his oeuvre. A work from this series titled Mona Lisa, Aged 12 (1959) became the artist’s first major acquisition by an international institution when it was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in 1961. When exhibited, the painting generated a storm of debate, its classically-inspired, figurative mode in stark contrast to the then-dominant Abstract Expressionist style. The ensuing controversy marked a turning-point in Botero’s career, casting his art to international recognition.
In turning to da Vinci for inspiration, Mona Lisa reflects Botero’s consistent and abiding interest in canonical Renaissance and Baroque masters. Between 1953 and 1954, the artist lived in Europe, traveling and studying in academies in Spain and Florence. During visits to the Prado Museum, the Louvre, and the Uffizi Galleries, Botero thoroughly familiarized himself with the history of art, knowledge that he would later draw upon while creating his own versions of works by such historical masters as Diego Velázquez, Piero della Francesca, and Titian, among others. As both homages and declarative assertions of his own ubiquitous style, these paintings brazenly cast the young Botero as heir to the lineage of Art History.
In addition to situating his relationship within the canons of history, Botero’s Mona Lisa series also places him in the company of modernist artists, from Marcel Duchamp with his mustachioed L.H.O.O.Q. (1919) to Salvador Dali’s parodic Self Portrait as Mona Lisa (1954). Indeed, La Gioconda has come to transcend the Renaissance era and today remains a recognizable image within contemporary, global culture. Well aware of this unique status, in an explanation of his piece acquired by the Museum of Modern Art Botero stated, “Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is so popular that perhaps it is no longer art. It is like a movie star or a football player. Hence an obvious satirical element in my painting…” This implicit acknowledgement of the commodification of the Mona Lisa reflects a Pop-like sensibility in Botero’s taking up of the subject. Indeed, as addressed by scholars Jaqueline Barnitz and Edward Sullivan, Botero’s art should be understood in relation to the context of international Pop art. It is thus significant that Botero’s Mona Lisa series presages Andy Warhol’s 1963 silkscreen of da Vinci’s painting by some four years.
Susanna Temkin, Ph.D., Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
1 As quoted in Alfred H. Barr, Jr. “Painting and Sculpture Acquisitions January 1, 1961 through December 31, 1961.” Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art, Vol. 29, no. 2/3 (1962) p. 58.