Rubens and the old masters at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota


The interior sculpture garden at the Ringling Museum of Art

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.

100_8010The 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, 100_8013which 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.


The side of the art museum building is visible across the bridge.

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.


At the left in this gallery are portraits of Austrian Emperor Francis I and his wife, the Empress Maria-Theresa, painted around 1750 by the Swedish artist Martin van Meytens II

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, 100_8076as 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 100_8071from 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. 100_8057The 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 100_8032country.  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.


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Michael:

    Thank you for your kind comments! I’ve enjoyed visiting your blog. But I’m terribly envious – what I wouldn’t give to be able just to sketch a rocking chair with a pencil, let alone paint a scene like the Old Collinsville Axe Factory Building! Fortunately one can appreciate art even without any personal aptitude for it. My wife and I generally visit Connecticut at least once a year – perhaps you’d let us see some of your work sometime. You seem to have been busy. Do you exhibit? A number of your pieces look very fine.

    Clearly you love Old Lyme! Sadly we didn’t make it there this year. We did get to the Clark Institute the weekend before this last one, and right after that (for the first time ever) up to the Shelburne Museum near Burlington. I hope to add a couple of posts to my Emsworth blog about them.

    Clearly also you love American art! I was tickled to see recently that the Philadelphia Museum of Art just added a new Daniel Garber – I think Garber has settled in as my favorite American artist after Winslow Homer. Here’s the announcement:

    Best regards,

    Rochester, NY

  2. Hello Rochester blogger – I arrive at your site often as a result of random art image searches – I find that curious, but satisfying, in a way. I lived in Rochester from 1974-1980 while I was a grad school at the UR, and have been back in CT since then. While in Rochester, I haunted the Memorial Art Gallery, much like I now do with the abundance of museums we have down this way. I have learned about other museums and collections form your blog, some that I hope to visit on my travels as soon as I have more time. Thanks for the many lessons from your interesting blogs. As a side note, I have begun to paint myself in the last two years, as a second prelude to retirement. I will continue to use your blog as a springboard for some of these pursuits.

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