Masterpiece Theater

By Robert Plunket August 1, 2010

John Ringling isn’t remembered as a mad man, but he certainly was a dreamer and a larger-than-life power in anything he set his mind to. His passion revolutionized the circus, and in its turn, show business in general. He saw the raw material in tiny Sarasota that could turn it into the sophisticated city it has become today. He presented his dreams and fantasies to the world. He knew how to thrill and move people.

So how do we factor his art collection into this? It’s a problem that has always puzzled scholars. Back in the 1920s, when Ringling was amassing his collection, forward-thinking, intellectual arts patrons were buying the exciting, thought-provoking works of Picasso and Modigliani. The old guard who still dominated the art world were proud of their already iconic Impressionists. But nobody was proud of their big, old Baroque paintings. They were florid, gloomy, a little too religious. Yet Ringling purchased more than 600 European art works between 1925 and 1930, most of them Baroque. Why?

Was it because they were cheap and took up a lot of wall space? Was it because he didn’t know any better? Did he have bad taste? Or could it be that they intrigued him, spoke to him? That he understood them in a way few people could?

It’s easy to dismiss Ringling as a parvenu who loved glitz and glamour and indulging himself with every luxury imaginable. But he was also an astute businessman and sophisticated connoisseur. He traveled to Europe with his wife, Mable, every year and soaked up information about art from their tours of museums and his own voluminous reading. In fact, the circus king was well-informed and the perfect patron for Baroque art. The two art forms, seemingly so far apart, actually followed the same rules. Given their many similarities, it’s no wonder that Baroque art fascinated John Ringling.

Baroque art was born with a purpose. It was the Catholic South’s reaction to the religious Reformation in Northern Europe. Not unlike their launching a PR campaign in God’s name, the bishops and cardinals declared that from now on, painting and sculpture should leave the rarified, intellectual approach of what was to become known as Mannerism and turn to educating, inspiring and entertaining the masses.

Never had paintings possessed so much drama and movement. Never had they swirled in space, in ways that broke the natural laws, all to make a more dramatic effect. Never were the painted figures so beautiful, so perfect, so glowing, so star-like. And never was the scale so vast. You hardly knew where to look first, there was so much going on. It was like, well, the circus.

This is well illustrated by the four massive paintings that dominate the Rubens gallery at the Ringling. Painted as templates for weavers to produce tapestries, these “cartoons,” as they are called, celebrate the Triumph of the Eucharist, the most important tenet of the Catholic faith. The grandest of them all and the museum’s signature painting is entitled The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek. With a showman’s flair, Ringling positioned it as the first thing the visitor sees. It is a prologue of what is to come, a spectacular opening to the excitement and color ahead.

This painting defines what the Baroque means.

Based on a story from the Old Testament, it depicts many references to the Eucharist of the New Testament. It is theatrical in both content—a story within a

story—and in style. It is even being “presented” by a group of angels.

Ringling curator Virginia Brilliant explains how integral these four paintings are to the Ringling collection. “Ringling decided to build a museum, then build a collection, not the other way around,” she says. “He purchased these pieces in 1926, and they literally determined the shape of the building we’re in. Before they went on the auction block, they were displayed at the Duke of Westminster’s Grosvenor House, and that gallery is the same shape, with the same clerestory windows, as the Rubens galleries here.” They are the only large-scale Rubens works in the United States, and undoubtedly Sarasota’s most valuable cultural artifact. “You can’t talk about the Ringling without talking about the Rubenses,” says Brilliant.

Baroque art always looks for the most dramatic moment. As in the theater, we are shown the meeting of the lovers, the death of the hero, the fury of the gods. And like the theater, reality is not good enough. The settings are designed for maximum impact. The clothing is perfectly draped—or in the case of many females, undraped.

In Time Discovering the Love of Venus and Mars by Simon Vouet (purchased by the canny Ringling for less than $200), the Baroque emphasis on storytelling results in a painting that’s dense with meaning. At first glance, the work seems to be a group portrait, but further study shows it’s presenting key moments of an adulterous romance set in a theatrical tableaux. “It’s really about how do you subdue, or calm down, lust,” says Brilliant.

The illicit lovers, Venus (who is married to Vulcan) and Mars, look at each other with a mixture of emotions—desire, anger, embarrassment—while Chronos (Time) is casting a net to ensnare their child, Cupid. The entire story of their love, from the initial fiery passion to regret, loss, and death, is written within the canvas.

In the Baroque period, religion dominated people’s lives. It was omnipresent. Many religious events had an air of entertainment. Religious feasts attracted great crowds, and pilgrimages, which could occupy months, even years, of ordinary people’s lives, were an act of piety, but as Chaucer showed us, great fun, too. In the pre-photographic era, these paintings were the visual wonders of their day. Crowds came to see Carlo Dolci’s famous Blue Madonna, acquired by Ringling in 1927, and many were moved to tears by her beauty and perfectly rendered sorrow.

Like the circus, Baroque art presents the triumphant accomplishment of superhuman feats. Under the Big Top performers fly through the air, contort their bodies, even disappear. Likewise, saints do things that mortals can’t. They ascend to heaven, they undergo ecstasies. They float above us, thrilling us with their freedom from mortal constraints. In Poussin’s The Ecstasy of St Paul (acquired by the Ringling’s first director, Chick Austin),

a group of angels lifts the disciple to heaven, in a beautifully lit and designed presentation that is totally artificial yet somehow believable.

Costume and setting are crucial to Baroque art, and no one understood the power of the costume like John Ringling. He knew the right costume can turn an ordinary person into a clown or a daredevil, a villain or hero, and the costumes in his circuses were extravagant, colorful and critical to establishing the performers’ character. In the paintings he collected, costumes also played a leading role. In Martin van Meytens’ Portrait of Emperor Francis I of Austria, circa 1745-50, the monarch’s elaborate blue and gold suit is so designed to inspire awe that there can be no doubt that we are looking at a king.

And he also understood the power of light, whether trained on an acrobat in the center ring or adding dramatic emphasis to a painting. Baroque paintings are all about light, the scholars tell us. The secrets of light had been discovered, along with the laws of perspective, and light was being manipulated in a new way that allowed for spectacular effects, including the famous chiaroscuro—bold contrasts between light and dark that heighten the reality and impact of the images—of the era. The figures in Baroque painting are often set in dark, dramatic spaces and seemingly lit by spotlight. In the Ringling’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Del Cairo uses light to heighten the drama—and the sense of the macabre.

Like the circus, with action happening in every ring, Baroque art was so exuberant that it was hard to contain within a frame. Baroque sculpture followed the same rules. It quivered with energy and was often monumental in scale. But not always. The museum’s collection includes an angel from the studio of Gian Lorenzo Bernini that’s only 10 inches tall, but its dynamic sense of movement characterizes it as the epitome of high Baroque.

The Baroque period lasted 150 years, from 1600-1750. It was followed by the Rococo, where the Baroque energy was reined in and made elegant. But Baroque art never really died. Every period has its own Baroque. The 1909 portrait of Mademoiselle Voclezca as Salome that ends the museum tour is a masterpiece of lighting and drama. It combines the best techniques of Velázquez, Caravaggio and Frans Hals. And Baroque is no longer a term that’s reserved for art that was popular 300 years ago. Baroque now means over the top, flamboyant, full of complicated movement, extreme. It’s the costumes of Lady Gaga and the McMansions of Longboat Key. And it’s a word that could easily apply to the life and work of its great enthusiast, John Ringling.


Modern Man

Matthew McLendon hopes to shine a spotlight on the Ringling Museum’s considerable collection of contemporary art. By Charlie Huisking

Like many visitors to the Ringling Museum of Art, Matthew McLendon was overwhelmed the first time he saw the massive, dramatic paintings in the Rubens gallery.

“My parents brought me to the museum when I was about five years old,” the Florida native recalls. “I remember being silent and awestruck.”

Now the 33-year-old McLendon is back at Ringling, with a goal of getting people excited about modern and contemporary art as well as the Old Masters paintings that have made the museum famous.

Earlier this year, McLendon was appointed Ringling’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art. While Ringling’s reputation justifiably rests on its Baroque and Renaissance paintings, the museum owns more than 4,000 works created after 1850, including pieces by Edouard Vuillard, Alexander Calder, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella.

Few of those works have been shown until now. Earlier this summer, McLendon curated an exhibit of 20th-century abstract pieces from the Ringling collection. It’s the first in a continuing series of shows that will focus on Ringling’s modern holdings. The exhibits will rotate every six to eight months.

“The Ringling has a long history of engagement with the art of our time,” McLendon says. “That commitment started with Chick Austin [the museum’s first director, profiled on page 50], who was such a force in bringing modernism not only to Ringling but to America. Now that I’m on board, we’re going to be more consistent in showing this aspect of our permanent collection. We’ll also be bringing in modern and contemporary works from other institutions all over the world.”

The Ringling’s commitment to the contemporary will be demonstrated in a dramatic way later this year, when a skyspace it commissioned from artist James Turrell will be installed in the Searing Wing courtyard. As with the other skyspaces Turrell has created around the world, visitors will enter an enclosed room, sit on benches and encounter the sky through a 24-by-24-foot hole in the roof.

“While an artist like Rubens worked in oil on canvas, Turrell works in light and space,” McLendon says. “Turrell was raised a Quaker, and his grandmother told him that in a Quaker service, you go inside to greet the light. That is what happens in a skyspace. He wants to remove the utilitarian aspect of light—using light to read, or to light a painting—so that visitors can interact with the purity of light, light for light’s sake. He’ll use LED lighting to manipulate the perception of the sky.”

The Ringling skyspace will accommodate about 50 people at one time.

“This is the only skyspace in Florida, and Turrell has incorporated the Florida experience into the design,” McLendon says. “The columns will be covered in a creeping jasmine, and there will be ivy on the walls, to give it a tropical feel. And during the summer thunderstorms, when the rain falls through the oculus in curtains and hits the tiled floor, it should be a sublime experience.”

Born in Palatka, McLendon focused on music, not visual arts, until he got to Florida State University, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in both music and art. He went on to get his master’s degree and Ph.D. at the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London. Before coming to Ringling, he was the curator of academic initiatives at the George D. & Harriet W. Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College.

This fall, McLendon will be teaching FSU grad students in Sarasota. The course will be based on an upcoming exhibit he’s curating that will focus on how hip-hop culture influences the art world.

Tall and sporting a head of Titian-red hair, McLendon has a full palette of interests, ranging from cinema and cooking (particularly Greek and Italian dishes) to Agatha Christie mysteries. Since taking the Ringling job, McLendon has easily adapted to the Sarasota lifestyle. “I’m lucky to have befriended some folks with a boat,” he says, laughing. “I’m loving going out in Sarasota Bay and walking on a sandbar.”

That sounds like the perfect way to escape when McLendon doesn’t want to think about art for a change. “But to be honest, I’m fortunate that I don’t ever feel the need to get away from thinking about art,” McLendon says. “It invigorates me to think about it, even when I’m out in the middle of the bay.”


Camelot at the Cà d’Zan

The Ringlings’ life in their new bayfront mansion was idyllic but all too brief.

John and Mable Ringling lavished time and attention building their Venetian palazzo on Sarasota Bay. But fate decreed they would only have a short time to enjoy it. The mansion was begun in 1924; they took up residence in 1926, and by 1929 Mable was dead, the victim of Addison’s disease. She was 54.

But in their final two years together they lived on a scale that was unheard of in Sarasota—or most of the rest of the country, for that matter. Their lifestyle was the last gasp of America’s Gilded Age, combined with the excess of the flamboyant 1920s. With a fortune at its peak estimated at $200 million, John’s business interests extended far beyond the circus. He developed real estate and railroads and owned thousand of acres of land.

The Ringlings usually arrived in Sarasota in November and stayed until April. Summers were spent at their estate in Alpine, N.J. Mable loved to entertain, and their hospitality was legendary.


A Day in The Life

Servants: The Ringlings had seven: Mr. and Mrs. Tomlinson, the butler and maid; Sophie, the German cook; Eric, the Swedish chauffeur; and three housemaids.

Friends and neighbors: On any given night you might find Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Caples,

Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Gompertz, Honore Palmer or George Lindsay (owner of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune). Out-of-town guests included Jimmy Walker, the mayor of New York City; Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers, visiting from Hollywood; and Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld

and his wife, actress

Billie Burke.

Local activities: John and Mable were among the founders of the First Presbyterian Church on Oak Street. Mable, who personally tended over her elaborate rose garden and a small clipping garden, was the first president of the Sarasota Garden Club, which still exists today.

Cars:The Ringlings had six: three Pierce-Arrows and three Rolls-Royces. Mable’s car was an aubergine-colored Pierce-Arrow.

Boats: Mable was the sailor in the family. Their fleet included the 125-foot Zalophus, the 60-foot Zalophus Junior, a speedboat called The Dart and, of course, a gondola.

Favorite food: John loved turtle soup. He had special turtle krawls built into the basement of the mansion so he would always have a supply.

Daytime activities:Tennis on a court surrounded by trees, just south of the mansion. Swimming in the white marble pool, currently being restored; yachting; afternoon tea in the solarium.

And in the evening: Cocktails in the Court, followed by dinner in the wood-paneled dining room with its della Robbia Madonna. Then it was time for bridge, followed by a late-night card session up in the game room for the gentlemen of the party. One assumes that John’s large cellar of champagne and bourbon was put to use, even though Prohibition was in force.


Cast of Characters

Some of the most interesting men and women in town hang on the walls of the Ringling.

They are an odd lot gathered together for a trip through eternity—the heroes and villains, kings and queens, and long-forgotten characters who line the walls of the Ringling.

Who were they? Let’s meet some of the most intriguing.

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, c. 1785, by Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun

Time has done little to diminish Marie Antoinette’s fame. She remains one of the most famous women who ever lived. History has judged her harshly, as frivolous and out of touch, but this portrait by Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun—perhaps the greatest female artist of the 18th century—shows the Queen’s elegant style. She was guillotined in 1797.

Philip IV, King of Spain, c. 1625-28,

by Diego Velázquez

Philip IV ruled Spain for 40 years, when the kingdom was at the zenith of its power. He had the famous Hapsburg lip, as this portrait by Velázquez plainly shows. He was known as a sober, pious man—but was he? He fathered a son by the leading actress of the day. The child, Juan Jose, was raised a royal prince and fought for the throne when his father died in 1665.

Sarah Bernhardt, in A Portrait Group of Parisian Celebrities, 1889,

by Alfred Stevens

The Divine Sarah, still a legend today. Illegitimate daughter of a courtesan, she slept in a coffin to prepare herself for her tragic roles. After a fall on stage her leg had to be amputated, but she kept performing until the 1920s. One of the first show business celebrities, she even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

La Sultana Rossa,

c. 1555, by Titian

This portrait was probably posed for by a model and not the real Roxelana, the sultana whose rise from the harem to the wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, the emperor of the Ottoman Empire, is one of history’s great love stories. Her husband wrote poems celebrating her beauty.

Portrait of Pieter Jacobsz Olycan,

c. 1639, by Frans Hals

If Mister Olycan had never picked Frans Hal to paint his portrait, he would be unknown today. But art has given him immortality. That’s a lot for a prosperous brewer in Haarlem circa 1639. The town’s mayor, he also raised a large family.

Agrippina and Her Children Mourning over the Ashes of Germanicus, 1773, by Benjamin West

This Roman empress has the dubious distinction of being the vicious Caligula’s mother. In fact, Caligula is one of the two boys clinging to her. That he grew up and became one of history’s most profligate monarchs you would never guess from this idealized version.

Sappho Inspired by Love, 1775, by Angelica Kauffman

Today Sappho is remembered as the woman who put Lesbos on the map, but in ancient times—she was born in 620 B.C—she was celebrated as the greatest of all lyric poets. Most of her work has been lost, but the fragments that remain confirm her brilliance. They deal with passion and love for both sexes. In this portrait, Angelica Kauffman incorporated her own features into the poet’s face.

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