When John Ringling first announced his plan to build a museum of art in Sarasota in 1925, he owned few of the paintings that would come to make up the collection. Nonetheless, he engaged the architect John H. Phillips, who had worked on the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Grand Central Terminal, to design the proposed museum. While Ringling liked Phillips’s Italian-influenced style, it would be another two years before he settled on a plan for the building and chose a site on the estate. The final design did not copy any existing building, but the choice of the pink color, marble finishing, and rectangular shape were all characteristic of Italian Renaissance palaces.
As Phillips was refining his plan for the museum, John Ringling’s ambition to build a Ritz Carlton in Sarasota had failed, leaving behind many statues and decorative materials that had been imported from Italy to decorate the hotel. These elements were easily incorporated into the design of the museum: the placement of the sculptures on the roof was common in both Palladian architecture and later Baroque buildings, while the other elements became decoration in the enclosed courtyard and the interior of the building. Other decorative features—such as the ceiling in Gallery 3 and the Astor mansion paneling in galleries nineteen and twenty—were purchased at auction to add to the interior of the museum.
As the museum building began to take shape, so too did the collection. Relying on the guidance of the German art dealer Julius Böhler, who operated a gallery in Lucerne, Switzerland, Ringling bought the majority of his collection between 1925 and 1929 at auctions in London and New York. While Böhler’s advice was certainly invaluable to Ringling, he seemed to have a clear sense of what he liked: he would mark his copies of auction catalogues, noting which paintings he wanted, which he had purchased, and which had slipped through his fingers. After a successful bid, Ringling stored his paintings in New York or Europe, waiting until his museum was complete.
In general, John Ringling tended to favor large works of art, which would help to fill the planned building and which were not as sought after by other collectors. Moreover, whereas many of Ringling’s contemporaries preferred early Italian paintings with gold backgrounds and works by masters such as Raphael and Titian, Ringling was interested in art from the seventeenth century. The Baroque paintings, with their bright colors and vivid figures in the paintings may have resonated with the theatrics of the circus. Nonetheless, Ringling was not immune to the aura of a painting by an older master. Like his contemporaries, he too desired to add works by well-known Italian artists to his museum. While many of the works by significant artists are very fine paintings, others have been reattributed to the artists’ studios and students.
Ringling purchased his paintings as much for their provenance as for their author or style. The works came from the great collections of European aristocrats and American tycoons, families that had begun to disband the contents of their grand mansions in the early twentieth century. From Alva Vanderbilt, Ringling purchased a collection of Gothic and Renaissance art in 1928. The Duke of Westminster’s townhouse once housed Rubens’s Triumph of the Eucharist paintings, and the Comtesse de Behague once owned a Lamentation then attributed to Rembrandt. Ringling bid for works being sold by the Holfords, the Astors, the Earl of Yarborough, and many other notable families whose previous ownership lent the growing collection an air of sophistication and authenticity.
With the crash of the stock market in 1929 and Ringling’s marriage to Emily Haag Buck in 1930, Ringling’s purchasing slowed, even as national anticipation for the opening of the museum grew. When the museum was opened for one day in 1930, more people streamed through the doors than lived in all of Sarasota. While he welcomed the public to visit the museum for one week in 1931, Ringling wanted Böhler to publish a catalogue before the museum officially opened. After Ringling’s death in 1936, the public had to wait until the state of Florida opened the museum in 1947 to see the treasures that the circus impresario had amassed in the hopes of creating a cultural capital on Florida’s western coast.
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