Although his tragically short career would last for only 12 years, Italian artist Rembrandt Bugatti has become recognised as one of the world’s finest and most gifted animalier sculptors.
Born in Milan in 1884 to an artistic family, Rembrandt was the younger son of Carlo Bugatti, an interior decorator, jewellery designer and manufacturer of Art Nouveau furniture, and his wife Teresa Lorioli.
It is not entirely clear how he came by the Christian name Rembrandt. One school of thought attributes the suggestion to his uncle, the Italian landscape artist Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899), another claims the name was the idea of his godfather, the sculptor Ercole Rosa (1846-1893). Either way, young Rembrandt was burdened with a significant weight of expectation.
Ironically, Carlo Bugatti was keen for his youngest son to become an engineer and had earmarked his first-born Ettore (1881-1947) to follow in his footsteps. However, Ettore’s chief interests were bicycles, engines and motor vehicles, a passion that would go on to see him found the legendary Bugatti automobile company in 1909.
A sensitive and rather introverted child, Rembrandt inherited the family’s enthusiasm for the arts and would spend hours in his father’s studio in Paris, where the Bugatti’s moved in 1902. He was also a great animal lover and would spend many hours at the menagerie in the Jardin des Plantes, studying and interacting with the exotic animals.
Rembrandt was encouraged by Russian sculptor and family friend Prince Paolo Troubetzkoy to try sculpting in Plastilina, an Italian variant of the modelling putty we know as plasticine. This innovation would have a profound impact on the young artist’s work.
Historically, sculptors had worked in studios, relying on sketches or photographs to recreate their subjects. However, the use of lightweight modelling clay enabled Rembrandt to work in situ at the zoological garden, closely observing his subject’s every move and interaction.
In this manner Bugatti was able to create some of the most faithful and expressive animal sculptures ever seen. Every pinch and nip of detail was executed by hand with immense precision, creating a remarkable energy and sense of movement rarely seen amongst the work of his peers.
Rembrandt first achieved critical acclaim in 1903 when at the age of 19 his works were shown at the Venice Biennale. Prompted by this success, he signed a contract to work with the renowned Hébrard art foundry and gallery, who also worked with master sculptors Edgar Degas and Auguste Rodin.
It is suggested that Adrien-Aurélien Hébrard showed little enthusiasm for Bugatti’s work and believed that the young artist was inhibited by his famous namesake. However, Hébrard’s insistence on strictly limiting the number of Rembrandt’s produced works, helped cement his burgeoning reputation as a highly sought after and much-admired young talent.
Sadly, Bugatti himself remained a troubled individual, suffering bouts of depression throughout his short life. It is said that his anxiety was so severe, he would often cross the street to avoid social interaction with friends and acquaintances.
Instead, Rembrandt took solace and inspiration in the company of animals and began travelling to Antwerp Zoo in Belgium to find new exotic subjects for his work. Soon after, in 1907, The Royal Society of Zoology invited Bugatti to take up residence, offering him studio space in the grounds and allowing him to exhibit and sell his sculptures on site.
In addition, Rembrandt was allowed to feed many of the animals, learning their habits and behaviours and developing close personal bonds that would only strengthen the empathy and emotion of his artistry.
Further acclaim came in 1911 when at the age of just 27, Bugatti was awarded the prestigious Légion d’Honneur for his contributions to French art. He also competed in sculpture for his native Italy in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, the first time that art competitions were included in the games, although they would remain an Olympic event until 1948.
Like many, Rembrandt’s fortunes would take a significant downturn with the onset of war in Europe in 1914. Antwerp Zoo was forced to close and many of the larger animals were culled due to the scarcity of food, a decision that Bugatti found devastating.
To assist with the war effort Rembrandt volunteered as an ambulance stretcher bearer at an Antwerp hospital, and it was during this period that he contracted tuberculosis, a bacterial infection of the lungs which was considered incurable at the time.
With his work restricted by the zoo closure, financial pressures combined with ill health to worsen his depression, and Bugatti took the decision to end his own life in 1916, aged just 31 years old. He is interred at the Bugatti family plot in Dorlisheim, in the Alsace region of France.
Brother Ettore paid personal tribute a decade later when he unveiled the ultra-rare and sensationally opulent 1926 Bugatti Type 41 Royale, the hood adorned with a magnificent dancing elephant replicating one of Rembrandt’s original designs.
Throughout his short career, Bugatti produced work at a prolific rate leaving behind an exceptional oeuvre of around 300 works which remain much prized by critics, curators, and collectors alike.
Click here to view a selection of Rembrandt Bugatti works currently available from BADA members