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Produced in a small edition of just three known examples, this cast is of exceptional rarity. Examples of this cast were exhibited in Paris at the Société Nationale de Beaux-Arts in 1904 and at the Salon d'Automne in 1907. Dating from 1904, this sculpture came at the time in Bugatti’s career where he was experiencing a unanimous wealth of critical praise.
"Here is a truly exceptional young sculptor…the sense of observation of his eye and spirit has given way to a great deal of talent… in which both poetry and realism are placed and united under the sign of his marvellous sensitivity… Each and every animal has its own traits, its own particular physiognomy… Rembrandt Bugatti is truly a revelation for all who love and appreciate impressionist sculpture" (Le Figaro, Paris, 22 June 1904)
UNE VISION EXACTE DE LA NATURE
Rembrandt Bugatti’s artistic career grew from richly artistic origins. His father Carlo Bugatti was a well-known Art Nouveau artist and designer, his uncle, the painter Giovanni Segantini. With their combined influence and the artistic milieu this engendered around the young Bugatti, he was provided with the fertile ground to foster his burgeoning talent. He began working in his father’s studio at first, exploring different sculptural techniques and cultivating his understanding of form. He was encouraged by his father’s friend, Prince Paolo Petrovich Troubetzkoy , “The Boldini of Sculpture”, as he was known, and began by modelling works in plasticine (J. Chalom Des Cordes & V. Fromanger Des Cordes, op. cit., p. 9). By the age of 19, he was exhibiting at the Venice Biennale, on the brink of a flourishing career.
Upon the family’s move to Paris from Bugatti’s native Milan in 1903, the young artist was installed within an artistic commune which brought with it new opportunities. The following year, in 1904, he signed an exclusive contract with Adrien-A. Hébrard which would prove to be the seminal collaboration of his short yet extraordinary career, leading to broad critical acclaim. As Hébrard recalled:
"Upon the recommendation of a friend to go see the works of the young artist, his pretty name was, at first met with distrust as I found it evocative of too much glory and too much art…Instead of a small Italian with dexterous hands, I found a true artist. This tall boy, skinny, blushing, and quiet that Museum regulars call 'the American' showed me, without saying a word, the modelled clays which represented a year’s worth of dedicated attention and work. These are the things I like to present to art lovers. In these they will find the pulse of life which animates sincere works. They will also find an extraordinary account of the environment in which the subjects were seen...Too rarely do I find a sincere and personable artist for it not be a joy of mine to introduce him to the public" (A.-A. Hébrard quoted in ibid., p. 99).
During these successful years in Paris, Bugatti was enraptured by the animal sanctuary at Jardin des Plantes and visited almost every day until his move to Antwerp in 1907. Here, he would observe the animals within their own world, captivated by their personalities and behaviours, developing a personal connection with the staff and the animals themselves which he knew by name. Bugatti continued to cultivate his artistic sensibility, acquiring the nickname l’Americain for his unique personality and demeanour, as described by Jacques Chalom des Cordes, “They called him “L’Américain” and before 1914, for the Europeans, this was a title that was understood as a stylish casual good-natured, inhabitant of a new world of dreams, an image of paradise lost. “L’Américain” is a legendary character and everything is legend around Rembrandt Bugatti…” (ibid., p. 9). He was lauded as the new young talent, the Bulletin de l'art ancien et moderne proclaiming in 1904 that Bugatti's sculpture was "An exact vision of nature" (ibid, p. 70).
Cerfs leur bois entrecroisés dates from 1904, around the time of his initial collaboration with Hébrard and represents Bugatti’s more impressionistic approach during his successful beginnings in Paris. Plaster examples of the same subject, Grand cerf bramant and Cerf à l'arrêt are held in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, showing the intuitive working of his medium at this time, sensitive studies of the stags in different states of interaction that capture their internal, emotional, states as much as their physiognomy. It was not for nothing that Marcel Horteloup proclaimed in 1906 that Bugatti aspired to be a “narrator of animal psychology” (in Studio International, London, in ibid., p. 129). In this way, for his depth of personal understanding and his new methodology for approaching animal sculpture Bugatti defined himself in contrast to other animaliers of the time, as remarked Édouard Sarradin:
“So can we see today, in this same Jardin des Plantes, the young Bugatti, who has somehow taken up residence there and knows no better friends than lions, panthers, camels, elephants, deer ... The Jardin de Plantes is his school ... No, there is also the horse market ... And there is the street ... But better than all lectures, personal observation, observation of the eye and the mind has formed his exceptional talent. Really exceptional. It reveals a marvellous sensibility, a vivacity and a force of impression, an agility and a confidence of transcription of which it would be difficult for me to give you a good idea of, and which you will best encounter in the presence of the works themselves. They have not at all, these works, the aspect of academia. By the quality of their movement and their “colour”, by the particular emphasis of truth of life, by their pleasant appearance of sketches, they are, if you will, 'impressionist'.” (Le Temps, Paris, 1904 in ibid., p. 32)
After years in Paris, Bugatti moved to Antwerp in 1907, attracted to the city by its magnificent zoo which, at that time, was the largest in Europe. In 1909, he would go on to create some his most iconic works, such as the cubist-inspired Le babouin sacré, Hamadryas, Le Lion de Nubie and Le Grand Fourmilier. In this crucial year, he also produced Le petit elephant dressé, a reinterpretation of his earlier cast of Rachel, the much-loved elephant at the Jardin des Plantes. This petite yet monumental upright sculpture would come to crown the Bugatti Royale car as its famous hood ornament, adopted by Bugatti’s famous engineer brother Ettore Bugatti who founded the eponymous car company.
Bugatti’s method of working by this time had become a distinctive trademark of his style and an expression of his artistic philosophy. Having intensively observed each animal, he worked directly from nature, sculpting the plasters on site at the zoo with full concentration to his subject, as described by Guillaume Janneau:
“A perfect disdain of conventional formulas, an extreme originality and a good understanding of animal life strike first in the one hundred pieces of sculpture exhibited in A.-A. Hebrard gallery, 8, Rue Royale, a curious artist, Rembrandt Bugatti. It is for the fact that he executes his plasters entirely from nature, in the Zoological Garden. At length, he examines the model that interests him. Then he commences work. He models his plasters on the spot, waiting with a fertile patience in order that the animal be represented in the attitude which seems to him the most expressive, that which best reveals the flexibility of form and elegance of structure. He does not limit himself, like others, to taking a quick sketch from the model or a sketch to interpret at leisure in his atelier. […] Bugatti is worth as much by feeling as by execution. He marvels at natural movement, at the muscle well adapted to its function, faced with the pure balance of muscular masses. And his hand immediately expresses his emotion with simplicity, without artifice. He finds witty features, discreet and restrained grace. The work of Bugatti is the way of The Jungle Book. It's ingenious, original, penetrating and just like Kipling.” (Gil Blas, Paris, 1911, ibid., p. 276)
The two casts from this distinguished collection featuring leopards are representative of Bugatti’s expressionistic later work, their forms elegantly streamlined and confidently articulated through broad and sweeping gestures that provide a strong sense of movement. The poses are sleek and monumental, showing his ability to capture the distinct traits of his feline subjects, accurate yet devoid of erroneous anatomical detail, that lends them a character sympathetic to their distinctive personalities. Léopard au repos and Deux leopards marchant from 1911 and 1912 respectively show Bugatti’s bountiful creativity and dedicated passion for the pursuance of his art at its height, before the darker times of the First World War that would see the destruction of his animal kingdom at Antwerp and the last years of his life with great personal suffering. In such a way, the over 300 sculptures of animals he created from dedicated observation throughout his short yet abundant career serve as a loving metaphor for the natural beauty and resilience of his animals, and at the same time, their vulnerable, tender, fragility as mortal creatures, in parallel with the life of the artist himself.