Throughout his career, Rembrandt Bugatti was determined never to repeat himself, using each new sculpture as an opportunity to experiment with form and explore the individual characters of his animal subjects. Earning a reputation as a prodigious talent while still a teenager, the artist was renowned for his extraordinary ability to identify “the right moment” in which to capture his live models, distilling hours of careful study and contemplation into a single moment or pose that successfully recorded the animal in its most expressive gesture. Conceived in 1911, Panthère à l’affût vividly illustrates Bugatti’s supreme command of the sculptural medium, rendering the sleek, powerful body of his subject with an acute sensitivity and attention to detail that suggests an intimate understanding of the creature.
Rembrandt’s father, Carlo Bugatti, was an influential fin de siècle furniture designer who combined the picturesque asymmetry of Art Nouveau with Moorish and Japanese influences. Rembrandt’s older brother, Ettore, founded the Bugatti automobile firm, which specialized in luxury and racing cars. This family of polymath artists and designers each pushed boundaries within their respective fields. Between their work, there is a common attention to the lines of the object, with roots in the natural world. In Carlo’s walnut and vellum desk (circa 1902), now in the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the unusual profile “suggests the jaws and teeth of an alligator,” as the Met has noted. In Panthère à l’affût, Rembrandt places particular emphasis on the sinuous curve that stretches from the panther’s nose to the tip of its tail in a single continuous line, which in later years would find parallels in Ettore’s car designs, most notably his Type 41 Royale and the mythic Type 57 SC Atlantic Coupé (1936-38), among the most valuable cars in the world, of which only four were produced. Noted for its extended split bonnet and its oval-shaped body tapering to the tail, the coupé gives the impression of a cat coiled on its haunches.
Bugatti explored countless animal subjects over the course of his career, from elephants to pelicans, anteaters to giraffes, tapirs to kangaroos, inspired by the exotic creatures he encountered in the zoological gardens of both Paris and Antwerp. Such a diverse range of animal subjects provided him with a multitude of shapes, structures and surface textures with which to develop his unique sculptural language. However, it is in his depiction of wild cats that he achieved his most charismatic and elegant works, capturing the commanding forms of leopards, tigers, jaguars and lions with exceptional artistry. The sculptor formed close friendships with the keepers at both zoos and enjoyed unprecedented access to the animals as a result, which allowed him the opportunity to observe firsthand their physiology, habits and manners. Studying the felines in great detail for extended periods of time, Bugatti would sculpt from life, standing directly before the animals’ enclosures as he executed the work. Those who observed Bugatti in action noted his complete absorption in the task, and also the unusual affinity he held with his subjects, who had a tendency to stand unnaturally still for him while he worked.
This heightened familiarity with wild cats granted Bugatti a greater awareness of the individual character of each of his subjects, enabling him to capture subtle expressions of emotion and gesture, in both movement and repose. Having observed these creatures so closely, Bugatti was able to identify the nuanced differences in the personality of each individual animal, their unique mannerisms, and the multiple ways in which they expressed their anger, delight, frustration, or focus. Indeed, while Panthère à l’affût stands as an authoritative and unsentimental statement of anatomical observation, it also carries a certain insight into the intelligence of the feline Bugatti studied so intensely. While the panther is seen lying on its stomach, it is clearly not at rest – exuding a sense of quiet power and authority, it remains fully alert, its body taut with a visceral energy, ready to spring into action at any moment.
Bugatti carried forth into the 20th century the tradition of the popular animalier sculptors of the previous century. However, unlike his predecessors, Bugatti believed firmly in the importance of sculpting directly from his animal models rather than returning to the studio to work from a sketch. In fact, he would often abandon a piece if he could not complete it in one sitting. Typically beginning without a reference point, measurements or preparatory sketches, the artist would react spontaneously to the animal before him as it moved around its enclosure, allowing him to capture subtle expressions of emotion and gesture in a quick, loose style. This working method was made possible by the artist’s use of plastilina, a revolutionary new wax- and oil-based type of modelling clay that was more malleable and slower to dry than traditional materials. Plastilina also enabled Bugatti to create a highly worked, tactile surface, alive with shallow impressions and delicate striations that track the movements of the artist’s fingers as they worked the clay, each subtle reshaping of the material captured and crisply translated into the bronze.
The present cast of Panthère à l’affût was once owned by the acclaimed designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, who was a passionate collector of Bugatti's work. Over the course of his lifetime, Tiffany acquired for his own collection and retailed at his store his own menagerie of bronzes by the artist.