"When your art is that saturated, what do you expect?" says Les Roberts, the gallery owner Britto sued, who denies having made fakes.

Love him or hate him, it's been a hard year for the man who says his paintings represent "the art of happiness."


Romero Britto has a way of making you want to protect him. He tends to oversimplify ("Is this article going to be, like, positive or negative?), is a genius when it comes to self-promotion ("Growing up, I didn't have nothing."), and is understandably preoccupied with money ("Carlos Slim bought my art, and he's, like, richer than Warren Buffett.").

He explains concepts by drawing pictures, tugs his index finger when he's nervous, and tends to parrot the same one-liners to newspaper reporters. Still, he is smarter than he appears, and he knows his rags-to-riches life story makes those very reporters swoon.

Born October 6, 1963, in Recife, Brazil, Romero Britto was the seventh of nine children. His father, Rosemiro, was a tall and handsome police officer who would "impregnate women and just leave them behind," Britto says. His mom, Lourdes, a manicurist, spent a lot of time waiting for his father to send money in the mail.

She bought a sandy plot of land in a then-poor part of town called Prazeres and built a small white house, where chickens and dogs scampered in the back yard. Three of her children died; nine of them survived.

"She was a good mother, but she didn't have much education," says Britto's sister Roberta. "There were times money was so tight we couldn't afford rice and beans."

Romero was always focused on getting out. He wanted things to be beautiful, clean, and orderly. He would sit alone under a mango tree in the back yard and read.

As he grew up, his older brothers spanked him when he didn't go to school or do his homework. "I think it was hard for him not to have a daddy," Roberta says. "It was like he had eight father figures pulling him in different directions."

At age 10, after spotting Michelangelo's Delphic Sybil in a book, he pillaged his mom's stamp collection to make his first piece of art: a little orange flower.

His chance to leave came when he was 16. After taking a test, he landed a scholarship at Colegio Marista, a prestigious Catholic school in Recife. He made wealthy friends, spending time at their mansions, riding in fancy cars, and eating delicious food. This, he decided, was the life he wanted for himself.

Three years later, he passed up art school to study law. Struggling painters didn't live in mansions. "I told myself I never wanted to be out of money again," he says.


The fledgling artist grabbed a paintbrush inside his cramped apartment on Le Jeune Road, dabbed it in green, and began to paint without a plan.

It was 1987, and after dropping out of law school and spending a year in the military, Britto moved to Miami, where he mowed lawns and washed cars while trying his hand at art.

He couldn't afford canvas, so he painted simple images on scraps of newspaper — sometimes using the news as inspiration — and sold the primitive, almost tribal works for $50 to $100 on the then-bohemian streets of Coconut Grove.

"He was a skinny little runt," recalls Tom Abraham, one of his first Miami friends. "Very shy. You couldn't get five words out of him." Abraham let the struggling artist set up a studio in back of his real estate office, where Britto tried not to dribble paint on the carpet.

Alan Serure, also an early friend, remembers, "He was a little offbeat — and his hair... He looked like one of the characters from his paintings."

By 1988, Britto had converted a beauty salon into a small gallery inside the Shoppes at Mayfair in the Grove. He had married his wife, Cheryl, and no longer focused on subject matter that was even remotely dark: the face of a woman crying or ominous headlines. He had discovered that people like bright colors and crisp lines, and his style had shifted toward what he calls neo-pop cubism. He didn't know it, but he was on the verge of becoming the McDonald's of the South Florida art world.

A year after Britto opened shop, Curt Nycander, president of Absolut Vodka, strolled into the gallery on the hunt for an undiscovered artist. He and Britto began to chat, and the executive — like future well-heeled patrons — found him down-to-earth and charming. Nycander sent the company's distributor, Michel Roux, to Miami to meet Britto and offer him a job: Design a pop art-inspired bottle of vodka for the mammoth corporation.

The ad, which featured a large red heart, ran in 60 publications worldwide and made him an overnight celebrity. The value of his paintings — which had sold for $5,000 to $20,000 — would double in just a year. So would his sales.

Britto, it seemed, was simply at the right place at the right time. And soon luck would knock again.


Morino Smith lifts a Chihuahua named Prince onto his lap across from an eight-foot Britto installation called Dancing Boy at the Shops at Midtown Miami. He wears a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, a gold Rolex, and one earphone in his right ear. "Oh my gosh, that one is my favorite," he gushes, pointing at the polka-dot statue. "It's so bright, so pretty — it makes me feel young again!"

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4 comments
pacomartini
pacomartini

My name is Paul Thomas Martin and am an artist currently working and living in Miami Beach, Florida. I'm an academic artist with a BFA in painting. I moved to Miami at the end of 1997 to work for an art restoration company...unfortunately the company was in trouble so I had to start seeking new employment. I suddenly found myself working for Romero Britto at his flag ship gallery, BRITTO CENTRAL in sales. I was very familiar with his work from a previous gallery I worked for in my hometown of Baltimore. I already knew how people reacted to his work and was very grateful for the opportunity to work for a brilliant marketer like Romero. I knew working for him would be an education I didn't receive in college. 

After a year or so I was named as Director of Exhibitions in addition to my sales position and was responsible for designing the aesthetic of the gallery as well as curating two museum shows for him in Coral Springs and Boca Raton, Florida. Perhaps they can't be considered world class museums, but Ms O'Neill glosses right over those and the list of other museums who have found Britto's work worthy enough to invite him into their spaces.  I also have to wonder what credentials Ms O'Neill has in art?

I guess what I'm getting at is that I find it remarkable that Romero can be so easily dismissed as an artist. Is he an academically trained artist? No he is not...but neither was Grandma Moses. For some, his work may be "unchallenging" but having visited some of the worlds most respected museums, I've seen a multitude of work that I've found "unchallenging" yet they get labeled as "Masterpieces". 

This country no longer supports the Arts. The budgets of the NEA and NEH have been slashed to laughable amounts. Brilliantly, Romero has forged his own path without the help of a single government entity or grant...he is entirely self-made. So, is he an artist? As a fellow artist it's hard for me to say (there are times when i question what my own work is)...however, I've seen the man painting away until the wee hours of the morning so no one can accuse him of getting where he is from sheer "luck"...I know very few people who have worked harder at their careers than this man. 

He's only human so the accounts I've read of his style as an employer have to be thought about in context. If your boss doesn't think your doing your job, you get fired. Successful people can often be VERY challenging to work for. I sucked at sales and I got fired off of the sales floor. But Romero really respected my work as a curator and gave me control over all that was entailed in doing that job.

What I like most about Romero is his generosity. His record of philanthropy in Miami is well documented but his generosity goes beyond that. Romero knew of my ambitions to be an artist and once he saw my work he quickly deduced that there was an opportunity for the both of us to be had. He invited me to collaborate on a collection of work together. At the time, it was something he hadn't done before...sharing his "canvas". As a nobody in the art world, I was more than happy to see where this project would go. In November of 2003 our exhibition, strangely and prophetically titled "Under The Influence", opened at BRITTO CENTRAL.  Our styles aren't even remotely similar yet the way our styles were implemented in the work created a striking balance. The show sold out. This man knows what he is doing.  (you can see the collaboration on my website paulthomasmartin.com)

This article was amazingly under researched and the Media community regarding the arts is what  is truly wrong with Miami (has Ms O'Neill been to the Wynwood Art District?) ...since I have lived here there hasn't been a single credible art critic on staff at any of Miami's media outlets. That's the real problem in Miami...not Romero Britto. Miami is NOT just an airport surrounded by malls...if the success of Art Basel tells us anything it's that. You who write just aren't looking hard enough and ultimately, YOU are the one responsible for Romero Britto's success by your inability to provide real coverage of Miami's art scene. Again, you aren't looking hard enough!


authenticart
authenticart

I just wanted to let you know that I for one was more than a little angry after reading the article written by Natalie O'Neill in the New Times. One of our clients that has collected over 200K in your work from us forwarded it to me.

 O'Neill is a bad writer. O"Neill apparently did not even take the time to verify her facts with regard to Les Roberts and the forgeries that he created in an attempt to extort money from you and hurt your reputation.

O'Neill failed to interview any of the thousands of collectors and critics that find your work refreshing, interesting and important!
If your work was only popular in Miami or South Florida O'Neill could make the point that it was simply luck and charm that has made you successful. The fact that people from all over the world have responded positively to your work and have found the need to collect your artwork simply can't be luck and charm! I congratulate you on you success and I am sure that  your legacy as an important pop artist has already been established.

Jeff Koons can make sculptures of hearts and pool floats and the critics considered him a visionary. Chisto can wrap the Keys in pink plastic and hang curtains in Central Park and he is considered a genius by critics. The fact of the matter is that you are both a visionary and a genius. 
Thank you for all of the incredible, unique, and important artwork you have created for the world.
 

juststeve
juststeve

He is not an artist. He's lucky. Very, very lucky that anyone has bought is overpriced cartoonish crap. A 10 year old could be more imaginative and original. Absolute shit.

pacomartini
pacomartini

@juststeve try and recreate one of his pieces...they are deceptive in their simplicity...creating the perfection he achieves in the execution of his work is very, very difficult.


 
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