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A History and Background of Artist Romero Britto in Miami’s Art Scene

FROM the backyard of Gloria Estefan’s estate on the private Star Island, much of the imagery that transforms Miami the city into Miami the state of mind lies in plain view: the Art Deco skyline of Miami Beach, the shimmering towers, the spidery MacArthur Causeway stretching for a half-mile across the aqua expanse of Biscayne Bay. 

On a recent Friday, another familiar local sight sat in clear view on a wicker settee on Ms. Estefan’s terrace: Romero Britto, a Brazilian-born Pop artist whose work seems as ubiquitous in South Florida as pastel hotels and $15 mojitos. 

Everybody knows Romero,” said Ms. Estefan, a friend of Mr. Britto’s. 

During the internationally telecast Super Bowl pregame show today, 140 million people will also become familiar with his art, when Cirque du Soleil performers do acrobatic routines within a moving set made up of three-dimensional art pieces like palm trees — essentially, a living Britto canvas the size of a football field.

While his cartoon Cubism has been dismissed by some critics as commercial fluff, Mr. Britto, 58, has an upbeat, almost childlike innocence. Metal braces glisten on his teeth, and he dresses in kaleidoscopic colors. 

That has helped to make him something of a mascot to Miamians, a reflection of the city as it likes to see itself: sunny, welcoming and irrepressibly optimistic.

Embodying the sort of immigrant success story that resonates deeply among many Miamians, Mr. Britto has leveraged his high-wattage art and personality to rise from selling art painted on newspaper (he could not afford canvases) on the street into a nearly $12 million a year Pop art empire. He is friendly with socialites and TV stars, sells to prominent collectors and cruises the banyan-lined boulevards in a yellow Ferrari convertible straight out of “Miami Vice.

“In the end of the day, people don’t want to hang a piece of art in their living room that is horrifying,” Mr. Britto said, explaining his success. “I make images to inspire people, not to make them depressed and scared.”

No coincidence, then, that in South Florida, Mr. Britto’s feel-good art is nearly as hard to avoid as humidity. His loopy, minimalist kittens, hearts, flowers and smiling faces — rendered in colors so saturated they look bright even through sunglasses — rise in giant sculptures at rail stations, corporate headquarters, housing developments and on paintings in homes like those of Ms. Estefan and David Caruso. They are even on murals that envelop the buses at the Fort Lauderdale airport. 

Last year, when former Gov. Jeb Bush, whose wife, Columba, is a friend of Mr. Britto’s, wished to present Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain with a token of the upbeat Florida spirit, he presented him with an original Britto painting. 

<strong>A WARM EMBRACE</strong> Romero Britto with his sculpture “Welcome,” in Miami.
A WARM EMBRACE Romero Britto with his sculpture “Welcome,” in Miami.Credit…Alex Quesada for The New York Times

Mr. Britto also counts Andre Agassi, Elton John, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Whitney Houston, Michael Jordan, Pat Riley and Bill Clinton among people who have owned his work.

“A lot of the people who live here are island people — from Cuba, Haiti,” Ms. Estefan said. “People are very vibrant, and color is important living here. You’re inspired every day by the sun, the sky, the landscape, the lushness. His painting and artwork reflect that.”

They also seem to reflect something deeper: a tendency of locals to behold this city of sharp contrasts (racial, economic) as a palm-dotted land of opportunity — just watch out for the hurricanes and real estate sharks — where Latin Americans from the South and snowbirds from the North are all invited to participate in a salsa-inflected version of the American dream. 

In his artwork, Mr. Britto studiously avoids many basic themes of contemporary art: disorder, tension, sensuality (arguably, the very things that makes Miami itself fascinating to outsiders). Instead, the work virtually explodes with warmth, optimism and love — Matisse channeling Picasso by way of Hello Kitty.

“I’ve loved Romero’s work for many years,” explained Senator Edward M. Kennedy in an e-mail message — Alina Shriver, the wife of Mr. Kennedy’s nephew Anthony Shriver, runs the licensing operations of Mr. Britto’s gallery, Britto Central, in Miami Beach. “As an amateur painter myself, I admire his dramatic use of color and his bold images. He’s a talented artist and a special friend of the Kennedy family.”

Mr. Britto has also won the respect of some prominent art collectors, including Norman Braman, an automobile dealer and former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, and his wife, Irma. “He’s like Calder was, or Miró was, with the warmth of the colors,” said Irma Braman.

Some critics are less supportive.

“I find the work of Romero Britto to be a commercial, flashy and warmed-over version of Pop art,” Elisa Turner, a critic who writes for The Miami Herald and for ArtNews, wrote in an e-mail message.

Paula Harper, an associate professor of art at the University of Miami and a contributor to Art in America, said Mr. Britto incorporates elements of Pop art and Cubism in his work, but he is not an artist of Keith Haring’s stature. It “looks like art; it contains references to art,” she said, but “he’s really a brilliant commercial designer, in my opinion.”

MR. BRITTO lists 12 museums that have purchased his works, including those at Florida International University in Miami and Tufts. But perhaps the impact of a Pop artist is best measured by the square foot. And around Dade County, Mr. Britto’s work is everywhere. 

<strong>SUNNY DAYS</strong> Romero Britto signing limited editions in his studio.
SUNNY DAYS Romero Britto signing limited editions in his studio.Credit…Alex Quesada for The New York Times

One afternoon last month, Mr. Britto navigated his black Bentley Arnage (one of four cars he owns, along with his Ferrari 360 Spider, his Range Rover and his lemon yellow 1968 Ford Mustang) past the Royal Palm hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, which contains Britto, an upscale restaurant owned by a friend that is filled with his artwork.

Over the causeway, the car hummed past a large Britto sculpture of dancing children in front of the Miami Children’s Museum, then, a few miles later, a giant sculpture of a running woman affixed to a housing complex and hovering over Interstate 95. Commuters on the Metrorail system in Miami near the Dadeland North station pass his 45-foot “Welcome.” 

“We need more images and news that is good news, to make us wake up in the morning and do something good for yourself and someone else,” he explained. 

Plenty of fans agree. His studio downtown serves essentially as an art factory, with assistants working in multiple shifts, a dozen at a time, to fill in the multiple layers of color on his black and white drawings. 

Original Britto paintings sell from $18,000 to more than $280,000. Romero Britto mouse pads, ties, skullcaps and artwork are also available at the gallery and online, and prints and small sculptures are available at retail outlets on 80 cruise ships, and he has licensed his images to Movado, Swatch, Nicole Miller, Pepsi and Disney. 

The scale of the enterprise has led to income that seems staggering to some in the Miami art world. Told his revenues are $12 million a year, Bernice Steinbaum, who has operated a gallery in Miami for 31 years, responded, “I think I’m going to commit suicide.” That figure, she said, “is a very large sum for one artist to be earning.” 

Mr. Britto said he does not pay attention to those who are jealous of his success, or critical of his work. 

“I really don’t care what a small group of people say, I just keep painting,” he said. “I’m not comparing me to these geniuses, but the pioneers of aviation, people who were trying to make something fly, people said they were crazy.”

He lives with his wife, Cheryl, a former nurse, and son, Brendan, 18, in a six-bedroom French Mediterranean-style house in the Pinecrest section of South Miami. His home’s bright yellow walls are filled with work by his art heroes, Picasso, Warhol and Rauschenberg. 

Mr. Britto with his Ferrari 360 Spider.
Mr. Britto with his Ferrari 360 Spider.Credit…Alex Quesada for The New York Times

“I feel comfortable with good stuff,” he explained, with a boyish laugh that comes out in wheezy, staccato bursts from the rear of his teeth, like the old television cartoon character Muttley.

Raised in Recife, Brazil, as one of nine children by a single mother, Mr. Britto barely knew his father, a policeman, who left the family when Romero was just a boy. After dabbling in law school in Brazil, he moved to Miami in 1987 to make a career of art, though he had no formal training. 

National recognition came unexpectedly in 1989, when Michel Roux, the importer of Absolut vodka, commissioned him to create an illustration for a national print campaign. (Mr. Roux learned about the artist through a prominent Swedish family Mr. Britto had met while traveling through Europe in his early 20s.) 

Mr. Britto, who is deeply involved in local charities, got to know powerful families like the Kennedys, who became early champions. 

But while sterling social connections have proved strategically useful, friends insist that Mr. Britto comes across without the taint of opportunism. 

“The allure of the artist is the allure of the man,” said Mrs. Braman, the collector, who recalled Mr. Britto’s teaching her grandchildren how to paint in his studio when they were younger.

Sanford and Dolores Ziff, local philanthropists whose names adorn the new ballet and opera house downtown (Sanford Ziff, an optometrist, founded Sunglass Hut), are close friends who sometimes find themselves in competition for the relentlessly social Mr. Britto’s attention. 

“I was at a dinner party last night,” said Ms. Ziff, speaking recently from her penthouse in Miami Beach, filled with works by Matisse, Lichtenstein and Britto. “A woman said to me, ‘I am the dearest friend of Romero Britto.’ I said, ‘No, I am the dearest friend of Romero Britto.’ ” 

Still, another friend, the actor David Caruso, insists that Mr. Britto should be considered a serious artist first, a personality second. 

“There is an onus placed on many artists to go to hipper, glibber, darker places with their work to make a statement, when in reality, Romero is exploring the other side of that expression — the happiness of life,” said Mr. Caruso, who owns 12 Britto paintings and named Mr. Britto the godfather of his 16-month-old son, Marquez. 

Mr. Britto, lingering over coffee at a cafe on Lincoln Road, summarized his career more succinctly.