This art museum junkie paused in his recent tour of major league baseball stadiums in the South (see this post) to visit what was a brand-new museum for him: the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida. This was, in fact, the first time we had ever been to Florida at all.
We were delighted to learn that the man after whom the museum is named owned the Ringling Bros. Circus. Sarasota was the circus’s winter home, which is why John Ringling built his home there. He called his mansion “Ca d’Zan,” which of course reminded us of Citizen Kane and “Xanadu”. It was included with our admission, but we didn’t have time to see it.
The Ringling Museum of Art is only one of several fine structures on a large campus, all of which is (we were told by the loquacious ticket-seller) now owned by the State of Florida and managed by Florida State University. Several buildings are devoted to circus history and circus artifacts, including Ringling’s private railway car, which is currently being restored in full view of visitors. (The railway car (above) is in the building pictured to the right; a friendly restorer working on the trim in the observation room seemed happy to talk to us about it when we stuck in our heads.) This is surely the only place in the world where one can view masterpieces of art in proximity to circus memorabilia.
A lot of retirees in Sarasota seem to have volunteered at the Ringling Museum. At any rate, we ran into them everywhere — smiling, cordial, and helpful, usually without waiting to be asked. After seeing the circus memorabilia, we found our way through the gardens and across the pond to the art museum building, which, we learned, was designed to resemble the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. It’s been open since 1931.
This building holds John Ringling’s personal art collection, as bequeathed to the museum, with a few additions over the years. We couldn’t help wondering whether Ringling personally sought out and selected works of art for his collection, or whether he relied on art advisors. In any case, he assembled a remarkably large collection.
We couldn’t help drawing a contrast with the Frick Collection, in New York City, which contains the art collection of the late Pittsburgh industrialist, and with which we are on intimate terms. Like Mr. Ringling, Mr. Frick concentrated almost entirely on the old masters. Our understanding is that Mr. Frick was very much a hands-on collector with definite tastes and affinities, who acquired new paintings very deliberately and did not keep works that did not give him lasting pleasure and satisfaction. A regular visitor to the Frick Collection feels that he has come to know Mr. Frick through his tastes in art.
But one doesn’t get the same sense at the Ringling Museum. The collection is much larger, of course. But it also seems more indiscriminate, as if Mr. Ringling had simply commissioned someone to collect as many of the old masters as possible. For us, Mr. Ringling’s personality didn’t emerge from his collection.
Still, the Ringling has a great deal of marvelous art that is well worth going out of one’s way to see. Among the most striking are a number of major works by Peter Paul Rubens. The Ringling Museum not only has several very fine paintings of normal size by Rubens, like “The Departure of Lot and His Family from Sodom” (above), but also, in a large special gallery, a set of half a dozen enormous canvases on Biblical themes collectively entitled “The Triumph of the Eucharist.” These deserved much more time than we had to spend.
Mr. Frick did not collect Rubens at all — in fact, he and Mr. Ringling didn’t collect many of the same artists. Both collectors acquired notable portraits of King Philip IV of Spain by Velasquez, but while Mr. Frick never obtained a Poussin, Mr. Ringling acquired two. The collection includes quite a few paintings by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French and Italian artists that we did not know, not all of which seemed especially interesting. But we enjoyed first-rate works by Cranach the Elder, El Greco, Murillo, Veronese, Henry Raeburn, and Joseph Wright of Derby, and we especially liked a painting by Anton Raphael Mengs entitled “The Dream of Joseph.”
The Ringling Museum has a few European and American paintings from the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth. Mr. Ringling clearly had no interest in abstract art or in art of his own country. But the Ringling Museum does have a major early work by one of our favorite American artists, the regionalist Reginald Marsh, entitled “Wonderland Circus, Sideshow Coney Island 1930.” No doubt Mr. Ringling the circus man was attracted by the painting’s theme.
After coming home, we found an article on the internet in the St. Petersburg Times suggesting that the Ringling Museum is experiencing funding difficulties because of the State of Florida (and FSU’s) financial problems. The museum seems to be well managed, well attended, and well supported by the locals; it’s absurd that anyone should think of closing it.