From jaguars and giraffes to kangaroos and cassowaries, the range of creatures sculpted by Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916) was so extensive that one peer joked he had known ‘more animals than Noah’.
Born in Milan, Bugatti moved to Antwerp when he was in his early twenties — purely to allow easy access to the city’s Royal Zoological Gardens, which was then the largest zoo in Europe.
Pieces by so-called ‘animaliers’ had been popular, predominantly in France, from the 1830s to the end of the 19th century. Parisian sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye is widely considered the father of the movement, and counted King Louis Philippe among his patrons. Bugatti’s career is often said to have represented the animalier’s final hurrah.
Rembrandt Bugatti at the Royal Zoological Gardens in Antwerp © Rembrandt Bugatti répertoire 2016
But where his predecessors had sculpted in their studios, relying on photographs and drawings, the Italian would spend days on end observing (and often interacting with) his subjects before settling to work in front of them. ‘One key reason for this difference was Bugatti’s use of plastilina, a revolutionary new wax- and oil-based type of modelling clay,’ says Anika Guntrum, Director of Impressionist & Modern Art at Christie’s in France.
‘Unlike plaster, which animalier sculptors before him had used and which hardens quickly, plastilina was very malleable and imposed no time limitations,’ explains the specialist. ‘This enabled Bugatti to sculpt in situ at his own pace, and as a result, to be both more precise and more expressive in what he produced.’
Bugatti found success at a young age, showing at the Venice Biennale when he was just 19 and receiving a Légion d’Honneur from the French government in 1911 at the age of just 27. The First World War, however, dramatically changed the course of his career: after having volunteered to work as a stretcher-bearer at an Antwerp hospital, he contracted tuberculosis — which was incurable at the time.
Another blow for Bugatti was learning that, with food so scarce, all of the animals at the Antwerp zoo had to be put down. In January 1916, at the age of 31, he took his own life.
But if Bugatti’s career was short, it was also expansive. In just over a decade, the prolific artist had experimented with Impressionism, Expressionism and Futurism, leaving behind around 300 works.
According to many anecdotes, Bugatti would often cross the street to avoid talking to friends and acquaintances. But his love for animals, in contrast, was deep-felt — and this was evident in his art. Bugatti’s human figures ‘lack the empathy and pathos of his animal figures’, says Guntrum. Anything but generic, they show such acute characterisation that they might well be considered portraits.
Rembrandt’s father, Carlo Bugatti (1856-1940), was a successful designer of Art Nouveau furniture. In 1909 Rembrandt’s younger brother, Ettore, founded the Bugatti automobile firm, which specialised in luxury and racing cars. In an act of sibling collaboration, Rembrandt designed the prancing elephant mascot for the bonnet of the classic Bugatti Royale. The figure was inspired by an African elephant called Rachel he’d seen at a Parisian zoo — an animal which also inspired a sculpture of very similar pose from the same time, Le grand éléphant du Muséum ‘Rachel’.
Bugatti produced a fair number of pieces featuring more than one animal. Among the best of these are Deux grands leopards, which depicts two elegant big cats. Dix minutes de repos ou Le grand fardier, an even more striking and unique example, is a remarkable feat of bronze-casting from a single mould. It captures six carthorses taking a brief break from their labours, each one different from the next.
‘The piece is a wonder of descriptive detail,’ says Guntrum, ‘from one horse tensing its body in a bid to gather the last bits of food from its bag of oats, to another with its eyes half-closed, lifting one of its back legs off the ground.’
Bugatti seems to have been rather forgotten after his death in 1916, characterful animal sculptures perhaps not having been considered to be in the vanguard of Modernism. For several decades, it could also be said that the family name held his reputation back: Bugatti meant cars, and Rembrandt remained stuck in his brother’s shadow.
Today, however, the market for works by Bugatti is ‘very strong’, says Guntrum. Among his most lucrative beasts was Grand tigre royal, a depiction of a prowling tiger, with expressionistic striations on the surface that suggest the stripes of its fur. It sold at Christie’s in 2008 for $2.6 million.
In November 2016, Christie’s Paris held a highly successful sale of the collection of 12 Bugattis owned by the French actor Alain Delon. On 14 November 2017, seven sculptures from another private collection will be offered in New York.
‘You might say he’s undergoing rediscovery,’ Guntrum says. ‘Major works are becoming available on a regular basis, and people are increasingly aware of the exceptional quality of these bronzes.’