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Editor: Jaap Horst

Volume 17, Issue 1

Rembrandt Bugatti

Walter Jamieson
Top picture, Lion de Nubie. Bronze. Conceived circa 1909-10

Ettore Bugatti and his brother, Rembrandt, had more in common than their exceptional artistry: their talents appeared so early that their father, Carlo, had to co-sign their first contracts when both brothers were still minors. When German automaker Dietrich wanted to hire Ettore as a designer he was not yet 21 - Carlo signed. When Paris-based bronze foundry, Hebrard, contracted to cast all of Rembrandt's sculptures and represent him exclusively, he was only 19 - Carlo signed.

Twenty-four of Rembrandt's more than 300 bronzes were shown at James Graham & Sons in New York in October-November 2004, a continuation of an exhibition at the Sladmore Gallery in London. At the time I contributed the following remarks to Pur Sang, the American Bugatti Club Quarterly:

Anyone who saw the Bugatti family exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1999 or any of the similar shows that have been held in London, Varese (Italy), Amsterdam, Hamburg and Tokyo is familiar with Rembrandt Bugatti's accomplished and touching works. Those who have seen one or more of the Type 41 Royales know that a small cast of one of his elephants stands atop each radiator cap.

There were other animaliers working in France at the time, but with the opening of Hebrard's new gallery in 1904, Rembrandt was promptly recognized as an important new talent. His reputation grew steadily, with one man shows in Antwerp (where the famous local zoo practically served as his studio), Brussels, appearances at the Venice Biennale, and again in Paris with a retrospective at Hebrard's in 1911. He was also awarded the French Legion d'Honneur in 1911. It sounds like a brilliant career, but despite these successes he was forced to rely in large measure on the support of family and friends. Some of the conditions in the contract with Hebrard turned out in practice to have been disadvantageous to him. The terms of the contract severely limited the income Rembrandt would realize from the sale of bronze casts Hebrard's foundry made from his original models. Since Carlo signed the contract that took advantage of his son, one can't help but think that he didn't understand it before signing. Ettore continued to be supportive and had a small museum built on his property in Molsheim to preserve and display Rembrandt's original plasters from which his bronzes were cast.

Cubism and other early manifestations of the Twentieth Century avant-garde were attracting notice in Paris at the time, and public interest in many traditional styles of art began to wane. Rembrandt's situation wasn't helped by this shift in fashion since his work, while both personal and original, and with some examples beginning to show some cubist and Art Deco influences, was still more traditional than not. When World War One came with its privations and horrors, his life took a final downward turn, ending with his suicide in 1916 when he was only 31.

The quality of the work he left and the reputation he had made could not withstand the onrush of new styles and -isms, and his name was no longer prominent in the art public's eye. However, Hebrard's prices for Rembrandt's work had started out high and didn't fluctuate as much as those of many other artists. An exhibition of his work was still held every decade or so except in the 1940s, keeping his memory quietly alive.

Panther, Puma, Panther Marchant

The Royal College of Art exhibition in 1979 was the first of the Bugatti family shows that would finally tap into the potential cross-over interest in Rembrandt's sculpture because of the fame of Ettore's and Jean's automobiles. Some owners of the cars became interested in owning a piece by Rembrandt or an example of Carlo's bizarre furniture. The sale in the mid-1980s of Actor Alain Delon's collection of Rembrandt's work at Sotheby's in London resulted in another rise in his prices.

The bronzes at the Graham Gallery included a wide variety of his animal subjects from a French Bulldog 5 inches tall to a life-size pair of antelope, and ranged from his most naturalistic early style to his later freer simplified forms. (French Bulldogs began to be quite the rage in New York at around this time. Coincidence? One wonders.) Every piece displayed the personal touch that distinguished Rembrandt Bugatti from other animalier masters. Creatures both elegant and homely are portrayed with the same affection; poses both graceful and awkward are handled with equal aplomb. Prices ranged from $40,000- to $395,000- [They are much higher now, in 2012.].

Elephant + Camel, Jaguar, Jaguar assis (sitting Jaguar) 1908, Leopard

Of course, they'll never take you speeding along a Route Nationale or competing in the Mille Miglia Storica, but they are extremely endearing, and maintenance costs other than insurance are close to zero.

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