Gothic Art in the Gilded Age:
Medieval and Renaissance Treasures from
the Gavet-Vanderbilt-Ringling Collection
December 19, 2009 - April 04, 2010
In the 1880s, few Americans had any interest in collecting medieval and early Renaissance art and only a handful of objects from these periods had reached the United States. However, within fifty years, such works of art were an expected component of an important museum collection and had become a significant field of scholarly study. This development was in part due to the collecting activities of many private individuals, some of them with very public ambitions. Indeed, it was largely thanks to the collectors of the so-called Gilded Age, a term coined to describe the ostentatious wealth accumulated by America between 1870 and World War I, that “Gothic,” or rather medieval and early Renaissance, art came to America.
Gothic Art in the Gilded Age: Medieval and Renaissance Treasures in the Gavet-Vanderbilt-Ringling Collection focuses on the collection at the core of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art’s medieval and early Renaissance holdings. Comprising around 350 paintings, sculptures, and works of decorative art including metalwork, furniture, ceramics, cameos, timepieces, and wax miniatures made across the European continent chiefly between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, this group of objects belonged to three successive owners: Émile Gavet (1830–1904), Alva Vanderbilt Belmont (1853–1933), and John Ringling (1866–1936).
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Émile Gavet – a Parisian architect-decorator, real estate speculator, part-time curator, and art collector – amassed a large and comprehensive collection of medieval and Renaissance works of art which he displayed in his Gothic-style apartment, considered a private museum, near the cathedral of Notre-Dame. In 1889 Gavet commissioned the renowned medieval curator from the Louvre, Émile Molinier, to catalog his collection and publish it with an appreciative essay. Like his fellow contemporary collectors Friedrich Spitzer, Georges Hoentschel, and Émile Peyre, Gavet sold from and replenished his collections for the benefit of visiting collectors, frequently Americans. Gavet artfully and idiosyncratically stuffed hundreds of objects into this apartment, in a seeming homage to or pastiche of the aesthetic of church treasuries and of the studioli and kunst- or wunderkammers (Italian for “studies” and German for “chambers of art or marvels”) of the late medieval and Renaissance elite, in which vast numbers of objects were displayed in dense and splendid accumulations in richly embellished rooms. This display almost certainly sought to target American collectors. Seeing themselves as the new aristocracy and desiring the prestige and trappings accorded to Old World nobility, such collectors would have viewed objects and displays like Gavet’s as the embodiment of the chivalry, piety, luxury, romance, and princely magnificence of a distant age to which the New World aspired.
During the summer of 1889 Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt and their architect Richard Morris Hunt visited Paris to search for furnishings for their summer villa, Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, and were introduced to Gavet’s collection by Hunt or their decorator, Jules Allard. An on-site visit may have occurred and a catalogue procured with the result that the principal works praised by Molinier were quickly purchased and sent to Newport. Hunt’s original plan for a Louis XIV-style marble-wainscoted “library” in Newport was jettisoned in favor of a recycled Gothic Room plan intended in 1880 for the Vanderbilt’s chateau-esque city residence, 660 Fifth Avenue, but never executed. For the first time in America, and decades before Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Vanderbilts displayed medieval and Renaissance art in an architectural context referencing the same Age, specifically inspired by the iconic Hôtel Jacques Coeur in Bourges, France, constructed in 1453. The display in Newport was in part inspired by that in Gavet’s apartment but more directly by the “salon” hangs popular for the display of contemporary paintings in the nineteenth-century in France. The collection and its setting were renowned throughout the United States and internationally. Public access to the Gothic Room remained limited but was teasingly referred to in such contemporary French novels as Outre Mer by Paul Bourget.
Following her divorce from Mr. Vanderbilt, remarriage to Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, and adoption of the cause of universal suffrage, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont opened the room by appointment and for public tours with the proceeds benefiting the suffrage movement. The room was rearranged at that time from a sitting room into a museum installation by eliminating some seat furniture and carpets. Living largely in France for the years preceding and following World War I, by 1927 Mrs. Belmont considered selling the collection. The international art dealer Joseph Duveen was invited to Marble House to provide appraisals and the Gothic Room collection was specifically targeted for removal to Duveen’s New York showroom for sale there. Although Duveen retained for his stock the tapestries, two paintings including Botticelli’s Resurrected Christ now in the Detroit Institute of Arts, and an impressive Virgin and Child by Andrea Della Robbia subsequently purchased by Governor Lehman and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in December of 1927 all of the Gothic Room’s contents were sold to the budding collector John Ringling for his planned winter residence and art museum in Sarasota, Florida.
Although Ringling had bought complete paneled rooms from the Astor mansion in New York to decorate his new museum, perhaps surprisingly he did not create a full-blown medieval setting for the Gavet objects nor did he retain the collection as a distinct unit. Instead, many of the pieces of metalwork and sculpture were placed not long after their purchase, trophy-like, throughout the Cà d’Zan, the Ringling’s Venetian-Gothic style mansion, suggesting that Ringling may have been as interested in collecting the Vanderbilt-Belmont pedigree as in securing representative works of art. Other pieces were later placed in a purpose-designed Gothic-vaulted gallery in the Museum. There, alongside other medieval and Renaissance objects that Ringling later added to the collection including a German carved-wood altarpiece from the Spitzer collection, the pieces were essentially displayed as part of the wider chronological narrative of the history of western European art.
Gothic Art in the Gilded Age will reassemble the collection first at the Ringling Museum – where it is at present scattered throughout galleries and storage vaults – and then at Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island. It aims to increase public and scholarly understanding and appreciation of this outstanding but little-known collection of medieval and Renaissance art, and of the taste for Gothic in Europe and America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Seen in this light, the Ringling’s collection offers an important opportunity to consider the varied ways in which three very different collectors responded to, appropriated, and adapted the visual language and arts of medieval and Renaissance churches and palaces – the objects’ true original contexts – to fulfill aspirations and achieve financial gain, to construct identity, and to enrich public knowledge of the past and its art. Meanwhile, individual objects – many have never before been published and/or are normally consigned to storage at the Ringling – will benefit from close and in many cases unprecedented study.
A catalogue publication accompanying the exhibition will be published by the Ringling Museum of Art. The publication aims to combine serious but accessible scholarship by an international team of experts with generous quantities of high-quality color illustrations.
A symposium on the theme of medieval art in America will be held February 26-27, 2010.
The exhibition and catalogue publication would not have been possible without the generous support of grants from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation through the Old Masters in Context program, the Alletta Morris McBean Charitable Trust, Mr. David B. Ford, Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Bowie Roberts, and the Fellowship Program at the Center for the History of Collecting in America at The Frick Collection and Art Reference Library in New York.