From BRAFA to TEFAF 2023 edition, some observers will have noticed the strong presence of animal sculptures (and especially bronze animal sculptures).
Is it because they were a craze for late 19th and early 20th century European collectors? For their presence in the exhibitions of the great museums? Or simply because they are a nice and timeless pieces? Or perhaps because they are witnesses of the current dramatic climatic problems with their inevitable consequences for the conservation of animal species? These could be some of the arguments for understanding and explaining a booming market… even if I would simply like to stop at the fact that sculptures of this kind leave no one insensitive to their beauty.
But stopping at beauty to understand an art object and its value on the market does not seem like a valid argument to me.
So I improvised as an explorer (of art, though, not of zoology!) to try and understand this market trend and get to know better these artists who have dedicated their lives to observing animals.
But first of all, what is animal art?
Animal art consists of representing animals through drawing, painting or sculpture. It is a very ancient art. The use of animal iconography is very varied, it changes according to times and places, but it undoubtedly owes its omnipresence to its strong symbolic charge, linked to the closeness between man and animal, a unstoppable source of fascination and amazement. It was already at the heart of prehistoric art, whether it be the large wall frescoes in some caves (Chauvet cave, in Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, Cosquer cave, Lascaux, Altamira, etc.), or mobile art ( small carved or engraved objects) dating back to the same period.
Far from the medieval bestiary (“Garden of Earthly Delights” by Bosch), the quasi-scientific study of animals by old masters such as Leonardo da Vinci (“Study of Horses”) or Dürer (“The Hare”) paved the way to experienced illustrators such as Albertus Seba and George Louis Leclerc de Buffon in their “Natural history” and “Cabinet des curiosités” on the borderline between art and science.
And if in the hierarchy of genres “those who paint live animals are more valuable than those who represent dead things without movement” (Conferences of the Academy, André Félibien, 1667), like the hunting and still life painters such as the Flemish Snyders and the French Desportes and Oudry, it is from the seventeenth century that the representation of animals becomes a particular genre of Western painting. Long considered minor, animal sculpture reached its peak in the nineteenth century.
The industrial revolution of the nineteenth century aroused as much admiration as rejection for the machine, and a pressing need to return to nature and its wild forces emerged. Animals thus became new subjects: emblematic creatures of a nature faithfully reported by explorers in scientific campaigns conducted in the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century with the creation of the National Geographic Society (1888).
The first animal art fair opened its doors in 1912. Some artists chose to make animals the main subject of their work, distinguishing themselves from those who integrated them into more general contexts.
It is an art that requires patient and sensitive observation to grasp the correctness of forms and postures and to “discover the animal soul”.
The invention of the 6 x 6 cm single lens reflex, signed by Victor Hasselblad, an iconic camera, before immortalizing the Apollo 11 mission, it was created to photograph flying birds !
Therefore a true art of observation and conservation (documenting and immortalizing the animal and the environment thanks to the art of representing it).
Which part of the history of animalier art interests collectors the most?
I would like to say all because there are collectors for everything, but in reality it is a very specific branch of animal art history that is opening up a booming market and making us discover artists or rather rediscover artists who have dedicated their lives to the study of animals , without great success during their lifetime, but who today would be the Rodins or Camille Claudels of animalier art: the European animal sculptors of the 20th century.
For a long time animal sculptures in bronze were considered as a decorative objects and no importance was given to the relationship between the artist and the founder, nor to the rarity of a piece. It took some time before the initially marginal and despised animalier art gained some recognition.
In 1908, the first exhibition dedicated to this theme was opened, and in 1913, the Society of French Animal Artists was created. The Musée d’Orsay has played an important role in the promotion and rediscovery of this art. Its numerous exhibitions on this art have been able to develop the more technical and even emotional vision of collectors.
For more than ten years, the Musée d’Orsay has been committed to bringing its collections to life: from the Zoo d’Orsay (2008), to an exhibition at the intersection of science and the arts entitled “The origins of the world. The invention of nature in the 19th century” (2021). It is above all the value of Rembrandt Bugatti and François Pompon as well as the exhibition “La beauté animal” at the Grand Palais and the one on the great figures of animal art at the museum in the 30s, in 2012, which have helped to make their value known , but also to teach how to look at them.
According to gallery owner and specialist Xavier Eeckhout (interview for the Drouot gazette, 27 January 2022, by Stéphanie Pioda): in the 19th century, 99% of bronzes were sand cast, and in the 20th, 99% were lost wax. In this second case, the mold breaks after each casting, the alterations are made by the sculptor, most of the time, the signature is engraved in the wax itself. The reliefs are more precise, the sculpture more nervous and the patinas deeper, so many points and differences that have changed the appreciation of these bronzes considered works of art and that have contributed to the growth of this market.
Collectors have an eye for detail and look for real artist’s proofs (i.e. foundries where the artist himself supervised the different operations: casting, patina, chasing, unlike foundries which modify and number the pieces without the artist’s technical control) .
In 16 years the prices of some artists in the sector have increased by more than 50%. Today, the market interested in the sculptors of the Ménagerie du jardin des plantes in Paris (one of the oldest zoological gardens in the world still open to the public, with that of Schönbrunn in Vienna) is internationally renowned. The Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes was opened in 1794 on the initiative of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, professor of zoology at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, to transfer there the animals of the Ménagerie Royale de Versailles and Raincy (belonging to the Duke of Orléans) . Throughout its history, the ménagerie has featured countless animal species, including the first giraffe presented in France in 1862.
Who are the hottest artists on the market and why?
The artists who already have a museum presence to confirm and institutionalize the choice and taste of collectors, concerning animal sculptures from the 20th century, are François Pompon (1855-1933), Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916), Roger Godchaux (1870- 1950) and Georges Guyot (1885-1972).
The Christie’s auction in New York in 2019, entitled “The Menagerie“, was played an important role in this direction: in addition to the artists mentioned, there were also the sculptures by Édouard-Marcel Sandoz (1881-1971) and Charles Artus (1897-1978), which Anglo-Saxon houses did not include in their previous sales because they did not consider them important enough.
Beyond the quality of their work, the story of these artists is compelling. They were mostly friends, meeting every day at the Menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and in Antwerp. Everyone was passionate and no one was rich. Pompon began to earn a good living in 1926 and died in 1933. To survive, Roger Godchaux was a stockbroker and died in 1958 without having known success. Marcel Lémar (1892-1941) committed suicide in the greatest poverty. Georges Guyot (1885-1973) also ended up penniless. As for Bugatti, his suicide took place very early, in 1916, but he had already produced a lot: he had made four or five hundred different animals in the span of fifteen years.
The positive note of this collecting is that it has allowed enthusiasts and some small antique dealers to become references in today’s field of twentieth century animal sculptures and to have an international influence. Amateur enthusiasts who 20 years ago could afford an animalier sculpture, can no longer follow the dynamics of the market which offer ever higher values of museum pieces that were previously little or not at all coveted.
Acknowledging the lifelong work and passion of these long-forgotten artists seems to me like a first step.
Times are changing…
And what about the women artists, animal sculptors of the same era?
Marguerite de Bayser-Gratry (1881-1975), Jeanne Piffard (1892-1971), Jeanne Poupelet (1874-1932), Berthe Martinie (1883-1958), Antoinette Champetier de Ribes (1892-1973).
Their rating is much lower even though they are talented artists…
- LES ANIMAUX DANS L’ART, Sélection du département Littérature et art. Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF).
- L’art animalier au Sab, une niche avec des artistes à part
- Publié le 16 septembre 2021, par Stéphanie Pioda, la Gazette Drouot
- Xavier Eeckhout, galeriste spécialisé dans l’art animalier, un marché en pleine expansion
- Publié le 27 janvier 2022, par Stéphanie Pioda, la Gazette Drouot
- Les Bronzes animaliers, Pipat Antiquités: https://pipat-antiquites.fr/fr/les-sculptures-bronzes-animaliers/
- Seba. Cabinet of Natural Curiosities. 40th Ed Taschen.
- La vie sauvage des bronzes animaliers, Le magazine des enchères.