In his career that spanned little more than a dozen years, Rembrandt Bugatti emerged as a singular figure whose distinct, powerfully modern vision bridged traditional sculptural and animalier devices with innovative methodologies. Bugatti was unique among modernist sculptors in his focus on animal imagery, which was central to his work. As explicated by Edward Horswell in his monograph on the artist, Bugatti, like the great painters of animals George Stubbs and Eugène Delacroix, "would bring to this tradition his own vision, empathy with animals and truth to observation. He would surpass the genre of 'animal art' and resist all definition as an artist, other than as one who forged his own vision and style. He used animal subjects at once for their own sake and as vehicles for the expression of emotion and the celebration of aesthetic form. He remained aloof from both the avant-garde and the conservative trends of his time. The distinctive, deeply rewarding, sometimes disturbing oeuvre that he created remains unique in art history” (E. Horswell, Rembrandt Bugatti: Life in Sculpture, London, 2004, p. 13). With his progressive stylization that balances abstraction and figuration in a novel way, Bugatti’s innate talents are displayed in Deux girafes.
Bugatti was born into a family with a strong tradition in the arts. His father, Carlo Bugatti, was a fin de siècle master known for his exotic and fanciful furniture, metalwork and musical instruments designed in Italy. His elder brother, Ettore, an engineering genius, who became famous for the mechanically advanced and eternally stylish Bugatti cars, had been the son chosen to follow in his father's artistic footsteps, but after Ettore exhibited an early predilection for engines and cycles, he relinquished his place to his younger brother, Rembrandt. By the age of nineteen Rembrandt was already an acclaimed sculptor having been selected to exhibit at the 1903 Venice Biennale. His training was provided by both his father, Carlo and his uncle, Giovanni Segantini, a leader of the Lombard Divisionists. When Carlo moved the family from their native Milan to Paris in 1904, Rembrandt became immersed in the booming center of commerce and culture of the Parisian belle époque. While the art world's epicenter was a major draw to the burgeoning young sculptor, Paris also contained one of the greatest zoological gardens in Europe: the Jardin des Plantes.
For the first time in his young life Rembrandt was able to contemplate exotic animals. His encounter with the menageries of large cats, elephants, hippopotami and other African mammals, zebras, various equines, unusual birds, a host of cervines and the towering giraffes revolutionized his artistic vision. The wide range of animal subjects provided him with a multitude of shapes, structures and surface textures with which to develop his unique visual language and virtuoso handling of the sculpted medium. From 1906 he began to spend more time in Antwerp, which boasted a zoological garden to rival Paris. For the next decade Bugatti would live among the animals, both in Paris and Antwerp, observing them at length, studying their morphologies, their attitudes, their behavioral nuances, their tones and resonance with his artistic malleability. Bugatti’s sculpture followed on in a journalistic vein, influenced by his dialogues with the animals, capturing what became a unique breed of portraiture. From the start the sculptor chose a free style of modeling in a typical Italian clay, plastiline, beginning without a reference point, measurements or preparatory sketches. The artist's meticulous attention to the nuances of musculature and movement, as well as his infinitely subtler references to the emotion and personality of his subject betrays his respect and awe for the beasts immortalized in his art. In Deux girafes Bugatti explores the animals’ relationship, conveying a deep sense of affection and maternal protectiveness between the lofty beasts. No doubt impressed by the sheer magnitude of the animals, charmed by their poise and inherent grace, the sinuous lines of their willowy, extended necks exemplify the brilliance of the artist’s skill in capturing the linear elegance of the giraffe’s anatomy. Bugatti did not confine himself to the elegant pose of the giraffe however, but seized upon the subtle awkwardness of the young calf as it attempts to navigate the world, demonstrating his keen observation of his animal companions.
Undoubtedly motivated as much by his devotion to creating powerfully modern depictions of the animal world as he was by exploring the formal possibilities of sculpture-making, it was no surprise that Rembrandt Bugatti signed a contract with the Parisian Foundry A.A. Hébrard in 1905. Known to produce only the highest quality bronze and silver casts, Adrien A. Hébrard and his workshop leader Albino Palazzolo recreated the dynamics of Bugatti’s sculpted forms in their arts du feu. The ability to reproduce the work in bronze became an essential element, without which it could lose its wonder, its originality. The delicate and nuanced sculpted surfaces required the high-level of finesse Palazzolo was able to achieve in the bronze medium; Palazzolo would go on to oversee the casting of the studio waxes of Edgar Degas in bronze. As is evident in the superb craftsmanship of Deux girafes, "the casting is one of the attractions which makes Rembrandt Bugatti's sculptures so precious in the eyes of many collectors. Indeed, it is perfection in the translation of detail, the slightest quiver is espoused by the molten metal, and there is the richness and warmth of the patina and its generally dark quality which was desired by the artist" (P. Dejean, Carlo-Rembrandt-Ettore-Jean Bugatti, Paris, 1981, p. 138). In addition to completing the casting process alongside Bugatti, Hébrard’s Parisian gallery on Rue Royale held annual exhibitions of the artist's new works and organized placement in the official French salons so integral to achieving success in the art world.
Meeting early success in his meteoric career, Buggati won support from Hébrard and other dealers, most notably the Grubicy brothers, and as well as from critics. Louis Vauxcelles, the avant-garde art critic who is credited with coining the terms "Fauve" and "Cubist," wrote the following about Bugatti in Gil Blas in May 1907: “Rembrandt Bugatti has thrown himself whole-heartedly into his work in a highly successful attempt to prove that, though not yet thirty, he is not only already one of our greatest animal sculptors, but has also the talent and the technique to model the human body. His animals do not pose for him, they pass by, stopping a moment, surprised by the sculptor, their bodies arrested in realistic postures…. Here is great Art.” After receiving the Legion d’Honneur from the French government in 1911 and having been prominently featured at the Venice Biennale in 1914, Bugatti was poised on the brink of international fame and recognition. However, like many, the effects of the First World War would upturn so many aspects of daily life, dramatically altering his career and delaying the widespread recognition that Bugatti himself would never live see.
The scholarly, politically-minded milieu of the Reinach family had its members, Joseph and his brothers Salomon and Théodore, immersed in the current affairs of the time. In the immediate aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair that divided the Parisian public and many around the world, it is unsurprising that Joseph Reinach chose to acquire a work that evokes such tranquility. With the declaration of War in 1914 however, the lives of both Bugatti and Reinach would change immensely. Joseph’s eldest son, Egyptologist Adolphe Reinach would be killed in the first years of battle, never meeting his son Jean-Pierre, who would meet a similar fate defending France in the Second World War some thirty years later. Bugatti, touched by the horrors of war having volunteered in a military hospital near Antwerp and with the loss of those dearest to him—his cherished companions at the Antwerp Zoo who were euthanized when they could no longer be cared for—Rembrandt took his own life in January 1916 at the age of thirty-one.
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