Art: Animal Instinct
when he speaks of the talent possessed by sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti, Edward Horswell’s tone of voice reveals his awe. Horswell, director of the Sladmore Gallery in London and author of Rembrandt Bugatti: Life in Sculpture (Sladmore, 2004), praises Bugatti’s ability to seize on an animal’s most fleeting gesture and fix it in bronze. Referring to Scratching Stag, a 1906 sculpture shown in his book, Horswell says, “The animal is unsteady on its feet, and Bugatti picks that moment [to depict]. It’s artistic suicide, of a sort. It’s so difficult [to sculpt], but he carried it off effortlessly.” Scratching Stag once was part of Horswell’s personal collection, but he sold it—a transaction he deeply regrets. “Every time I visit [the client],” says Horswell, “I try to wrestle it back.”
Throughout the year, to commemorate the centenary of the artist’s first one-man show, Sladmore and New York’s James Graham & Sons galleries will display Bugattis for sale and host events showcasing the sculptor’s work. The displays and events will introduce more collectors to Bugatti, who, despite his family name, has remained relatively obscure. The son of designer Carlo Bugatti and younger brother of automaker Ettore, Rembrandt was born in 1884 in Milan, Italy. His family recognized his gifts after Carlo discovered a sculpture of a group of cows that was hidden under a cloth in his studio. When Rembrandt, then 14, admitted authorship, his father changed automotive and artistic history by allowing Ettore to leave art school for an engineering apprenticeship and sending Rembrandt to art school instead.
Rembrandt’s models were limited to domestic animals until 1903, when his family moved from Milan to Paris, where he frequented the Jardin des Plantes zoo, home to elephants, big cats, and other exotic creatures. (In 1928, long after Rembrandt’s death, Ettore used one of his brother’s elephant sculptures as a hood ornament for the Bugatti Royale.)
Rembrandt connected with animals better than he did with people, says Horswell. “Bugatti was a bit of a loner, and he preferred the innocence of animals,” he says, explaining that Bugatti’s mood gradually darkened because of deteriorating health, romantic failures, the horrors of World War I, and other woes, and that his gloom is apparent in his work. Zoos of his era kept animals in cages, and the beasts sometimes failed to adapt to life in captivity. Some despaired, and others went insane. Bugatti, witnessing these reactions, drew on them. “Lots of artists reflect their own moods and feelings in their work,” Horswell says. “He picked up on the animals’ feelings of isolation and depression.” Ultimately, these emotions overwhelmed the artist, and he committed suicide in his Paris apartment at the age of 31.
By the time Bugatti died in 1916, he had produced more than 300 sculptures, of which an estimated 1,000 casts survive. Some pieces can cost as little as $30,000, but the prices of the most coveted examples exceed six figures. Horswell’s gallery recently received a 1904 panther, a rendition of a popular Bugatti subject that should sell for $400,000. “Everybody loved it when it was cast, and everyone loves it today,” Horswell says. “It reeks of essence of panther. It’s a great piece.”