NEW YORK — Born in Italy, Beniamino Benvenuto Bufano (1898-1970) was raised in New York City and arrived in San Francisco in 1913 to create art for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to take place two years later. He spent most of his life in the Northern California city, where his art is well represented — 50 of his large sculptures are displayed outdoors in and around San Francisco, and his artwork continues to attract collectors and interest to this day.
Bufano is perhaps best known for his nine-foot tall statue, St. Francis of the Guns, one of several works he did as a pacifist protest statement. It was cast in 1968, two years before his death, and is sited at the City College of San Francisco.
The artist was a character during his life, often butting heads with city officials in San Francisco and his own art patrons such as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who is said to have smashed maquettes of his work when she commissioned him to translate her sketches into sculpture. Reportedly, he rendered them in his own artistic style instead of hers. In frustration, she threw the maquettes on the floor, and he quit working for her on the spot.
He was also in the habit of exaggerating or changing details about his life when interviewed by reporters, and later said that he told them what he thought they wanted to hear. Sometime in 1917, after the United States joined World War I, he cut off his right index finger by accident and sent it to then-President Woodrow Wilson as a protest against that war. He is said to have claimed to have cut off his finger deliberately for this reason, which was reported in newspapers and became legend.
While the prolific sculptor created many versions of works featuring St. Francis and peace themes, it is his animal sculptures, both small and life-size, which are beloved. He mostly worked in a Modernist style, creating animals that have plump, rounded forms and simple shapes.
He worked in a variety of media, from cast stone and marble to bronze and stainless steel, and one of his favorite types of animals to sculpt were birds. A Bufano owl sculpture in bronze, sitting on a wooden base, sold for $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2019 at Clars Auction Gallery. The signed piece measures 10in tall.
Bronze was a preferred medium for the artist and penguins a preferred subject; a circa-1966 bronze penguin sculpture brought $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020 at Heritage Auctions. His public art installations include several massive works featuring penguins, including Penguin’s Prayer, created for a World’s Fair held in 1939. The sleek penguin auctioned at Heritage boasts a fine patinated surface and stands slightly more than 10in tall, yet has all the majesty and charm of his larger-than-life penguin sculptures.
Bufano created animal-themed works of all sizes and species, from bears to small mammals. A bronze mole sculpture in a recumbent pose made $6,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022 at San Rafael Auction Gallery. The limited edition sculpture measures 12 ½in long, and similar variations were done in stone.
Exemplifying his predilection for rotund forms and a paucity of details in keeping with the Modernist style is his interpretation of a hedgehog. One such Bufano bronze realized $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2019 at Michaan’s Auctions and measures 7 by nearly 9in.
The artist also worked in stone and ceramics as well, as seen in a Bufano snail sculpted in white marble, which took $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2018 at Clars Auction Gallery.
Animals have long been a favored subject in artwork, and Bufano’s sculptures of birds and beasts remain popular with animal lovers as well as those who appreciate his skilled yet restrained approach.