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Rembrandt Bugatti: He knew ‘more animals than Noah’

The elder brother of Ettore Bugatti, the auto pioneer, spent his days at Antwerp Zoo sculpting its inhabitants. When he took his own life at the age of 31 he left behind around 300 works — seven of which are offered in New York on 14 November 

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  • Bugatti was one of the finest ever sculptors of animal figures


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’. 

Rembrandt Bugatti (1885-1916), Lionne couchée bâillant, circa 1903. Sold for €841,000 on 23 November 2011  at Christie’s in Paris

Rembrandt Bugatti (1885-1916), Lionne couchée bâillant, circa 1903. Sold for €841,000 on 23 November 2011 at Christie’s in Paris

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.

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  • He spent days observing — and often interacting with — his subjects


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

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.

Rembrandt Bugatti 1884-1916, Panthère jouant avec une boule, created in 1906. Sold for €962,500 on 22 November 2016  at Christie’s in Paris

Rembrandt Bugatti 1884-1916, Panthère jouant avec une boule, created in 1906. Sold for €962,500 on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in Paris

‘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.’

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  • His career was cut tragically short

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.

Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916), Rhinocéros de trois ans, conceived circa 1909-10 and cast in an edition of six. Bronze with brown patina. Height 15¾ in (40 cm), length 26¾ in (68 cm). Estimate $400,000-600,000. This work is offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 14 November at Christies in New York
Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916), Rhinocéros de trois ans, conceived circa 1909-10 and cast in an edition of six. Bronze with brown patina. Height: 15¾ in (40 cm), length: 26¾ in (68 cm). Estimate: $400,000-600,000. This work is offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 14 November at Christie's in New York

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.

Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916), Jument et son poulain. Bronze with brown patina. Conceived in 1907 and cast in an edition of six. Height 15¾ in (40 cm), length 23⅝ in (60 cm). Estimate $300,000-500,000. This work is offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 14 November at Christies in New York
Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916), Jument et son poulain. Bronze with brown patina. Conceived in 1907 and cast in an edition of six. Height: 15¾ in (40 cm), length: 23⅝ in (60 cm). Estimate: $300,000-500,000. This work is offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 14 November at Christie's in New York
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  • He was unable to connect with people in the same way he did with animals

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 Bugatti (1884-1916), Le grand elephant du Muséum Rachel, circa 1903-04. Height 24 in (61 cm); length 18½ in (47 cm). Estimate $500,000-700,000. This work is offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 14 November at Christies in New York
Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916), Le grand elephant du Muséum 'Rachel', circa 1903-04. Height: 24 in (61 cm); length: 18½ in (47 cm). Estimate: $500,000-700,000. This work is offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 14 November at Christie's in New York
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  • His collaborated with his younger brother, Ettore, to create an iconic car mascot

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’.



Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916), Deux grands leopards, circa 1913. Sold for €902,500 on 22 November 2016  at Christie’s in Paris

Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916), Deux grands leopards, circa 1913. Sold for €902,500 on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in Paris

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  • Several of his works feature more than one creature

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.

Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916), Dix minutes de repos ou Le grand fardier, conceived in 1905 and cast in 1906; this bronze is unique. Bronze with brown patina. Height 15¾ in (40 cm), length 102⅜ in (260 cm). Estimate $800,000-1,200,000. This works is offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 14 November at Christies in New York
Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916)Dix minutes de repos ou Le grand fardier, conceived in 1905 and cast in 1906; this bronze is unique. Bronze with brown patina. Height: 15¾ in (40 cm), length: 102⅜ in (260 cm). Estimate: $800,000-1,200,000. This works is offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 14 November at Christie's in New York

‘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.’

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  • After decades in his brother’s shadow, his reputation is enjoying a renaissance

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.’