The Fernando Botero exhibition, which opened last night at the Hirshhorn Museum, begins on the defensive:

"My subject matter is something satirical," says Botero's statement hanging at the entrance to the show, "but these 'puffed-up' personalities are being 'puffed' to give them sensuality."

Sensuality may be his goal in the 66 paintings and sculptures representing the last 30 of his 47 years, but it is the fat people who inhabit Botero's world that have made him famous -- the rotund little priests, dictators and madonnas, the chubby takeoffs on paintings by the old masters. Even dogs and cats seem to have goiter problems in his overweight world.

At $30,000 to $100,000 each, his pudgy forms have brought him a sizable income -- and a large following. But they have also brought him considerable grief from those who call his style "gimmicky" -- a "manner." Most critics don't like artists who keep humming the same tune over and over again.

"But I'm not interested in fat people as fat people," he insists, adding, "There's a difference between finding a manner' -- a style -- and producing a product. This is the way I paint. Why should I change?"

And then he adds, "Besides, artists from Piero della Francesca to Ingres and Cezanne had distinctive sytles. Why shouldn't I?" Botero is way out of his depth in such company. He is, however more interesting than many critics have thought, and this exhibition gives him the first major opportunity he has had to prove it in the United States. He is far better known in Europe, where he now lives, and has shown widely there. He has six dealers -- Marlborough in New York and five others in Europe, "the best, most powerful dealers in the world," he says, smiling over his tidy beard.

Born in Columbia, where he had his first solo show at age 17, Botero studdied in the museums of Europe before settling in Mexico, where he evolved the inflated forms that would become his hallmark. That discovery is represented in this show not by a figure painting, but by a single, fat, centered, space-filling "Apple" from 1958.

"I was trying to communicate so much with that little subject, to make it like a bomb that will explode, that in the end it becomes a strange presence," says Botero.

Much of his work is amusing -- but his still-life paintings are the most poignant: bulging fruit and flowers vibrate with anthropomorphic overtones. "Onions" from 1974 is one of the most beautiful paintings he has made.

While living in Mexico, Botero had his first show in Washington at the Pan American Union in 1957. And while the response was minimal, that show led to others at the Gres Gallery, which glowed here briefly in the late '50s and early '60s. "It was at Gres where things began to happen for me -- it was a breakthrough," says Botero.

On the strength of that success he moved to New York, where the big breaks came. The Museum of Modern Art purchased his funny and striking "Mona Lisa at Age 12" and exhibited it just as pop art began its rise. Joe Hirshhorn visited his Greenwich Village studio and bought a few paintings, including "Homage to Mantegna," which is in the present show.

During his years in New York he produced prodigiously -- more funny takeoffs like "Rubens' Woman," purchased by the Guggenneim Museum in 1963. By 1964 he had bought himself a place in Easthampton. In 1968 Guggenheim director Tom Messer gave him his first portrait commission. The Messer family portrait is in the show.

Cynthia McCabe, the Hirshhorn curator who was assigned to do this show, calls the '60s Botero's "classic" phase. As the paintings got bigger and bigger, they also abandoned the abstract expressionist brushstroking that had marked the earlier "Mona Lisa." Spanish Colonial paintings seemed to be a major influence in several madonnas, including "Our Lady of New York City." (The artist, complete with his palette, often turned up in a corner of these works.)

By 1973 Botero abandoned New York for Paris, where he had become increasingly popular.

There are many striking works from Paris, where the artist still lives and works in the historic former Academie Julian -- one of three pieces of French real estate he admits to owning.

A most unusual painting from this period is called "The War," the first "serious" work -- to use his word -- since his youth, when he made the drawing of a tortured nude woman which begins the show.

"When you're young you always have an interest in sad things -- I don't know why," says Botero. "The War" is a large, bloody, cynical work showing a stack of slaughtered bodies, with obvious references to Latin America dictatorships. It is composed much like his overcrowded bowls of fruit, but it is powerfully disturbing.

"I had always wanted to do something about the war, but you have to wait for events to fill your imagination until they just come out."

"But I don't suffer," explains Botero. "I did, but that was before I knew how to paint. The art of painting is the art of joy."

From 1976 to '78 Botero abandoned painting temporarily to render some of his typical fat personages in three dimensions. Or rather, he made the clay models from which they were then cast in bronze or epoxy resin. A giant bloated hand is haunting. "I never touched it," he exults. "But I created the forms in clay. That's the important thing."

Whether or not he surprises his critics, he will surely please the army of aficionados who have turned out to welcome him back to Washington.

As he doffed his beaver coat at the Hirshhorn opening last night, the artist was swiftly joined by a throng that included Beatrice Perry, former owner of Gres Gallery, and longtime Botero-booster Barbara Gordon, who will throw a final bash for the artist tonight at the Art Barn.

Also swarming about was a large New York contingent of collectors and dealers, including Pierre Levai, director of Marlborough Gallery, who threw a dinner at the Jockey Club earlier this week to welcome the Botero family delegation. That group included daughter Lina, 21, a drama and film student in Boston, and Botero's two sons from Bogota, Fernando, 23, and Juan Carlos, 19. Their mother, Botero's first wife who is now the Colombian minister of culture, did not attend.

No one was more enthusiastic than Joachim Jean Aberbach, who owns 25 percent of all the copyrights on Elvis Presley's music, along with more early Boteros than he can count, which he now trades. "But don't mix up Botero with Presley," he warned. Everyone within earshot promised they would not.

"Did you see my Botero?" art lover Evelyn Zlotnick was heard asking a friend. "It's great to have around when you're dieting. Every time I go to get a piece of cake, it deters me."

Botero himself was asked whether he had brought along a girl friend, either thin or fat. "No, I'm alone," he answered. "But I have a thin one in Paris."

The show continues through Feb. 10, after which it will move on to the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi.