Historical significance, celebrity provenance, fine art: "Gothic Art in the Gilded Age" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art delivers in each category. It's a romp through the drawing rooms of the privileged classes and the habits of wealthy Americans bent on assembling instant collections of great art by wresting it from the faltering European nobility in the early 20th century. It's the story, told in microcosm, of the formative roots of the great U.S. museums.
It also originates from the Ringling, the two-year project of Virginia Brilliant, associate curator of European art. She and Paul F. Miller, curator for the Preservation Society in Newport, R.I., essentially solved some long-ago mysteries surrounding a group of about 340 medieval and Renaissance objects and art purchased by John Ringling (1866-1936) from Alva Vanderbilt Belmont (1853-1933) in 1927 and now in the permanent collection of the Sarasota museum Ringling founded. They're exhibited together for the first time since Mrs. Belmont sent the lot to Ringling in 1927.
One part of the Searing Gallery has been staged as three large rooms, outfitted to simulate the Parisian apartment of 19th century collector Emile Gavet, the Gothic Room in the Vanderbilts' storied Marble House in Newport, and the drawing room of Ca d'Zan, John and Mable Ringling's mansion in Sarasota. The installation is, of course, far less sumptuous than the real rooms but it provides a sense of how these people lived with their high-end stuff.
For that's how these objects really seemed to be regarded, especially by Mrs. Vanderbilt. Her Gothic Room was crammed with paintings and sculpture stacked to the ceiling, tables covered with precious bibelots and cabinets overflowing with objects. Without a very tall ladder, much of the art could barely been seen, much less studied.
That's true of this exhibition, too, and Brilliant makes the point in her own hang that the real value of this collection was in its entirety rather than the greatness of any single part.
So really, it's a historical and decorative show, to be enjoyed as such. And the history of the collection is fascinating.
The story begins in the latter part of the 19th century, when industrialism created newly minted millionaires in the United States. Alva Erskine Smith married one, William K. Vanderbilt, heir to a shipping and railroad fortune. She was socially ambitious and built three grand mansions that needed furnishing. One was the famous Marble House in Rhode Island, now a museum, built for a reported $11 million, about $140 million in today's dollars.
Mrs. Vanderbilt had the tastes of her time. She coveted medieval and Renaissance art because it was considered important and she had more of a predilection for three-dimensional art instead of paintings. She was a cultivated woman, having lived in France during her childhood, but not a true art lover. She loved the Gothic style and commissioned a room in Marble House with appropriate architectural details. Then she had to fill it.
Her needs were propitiously met through the acquaintance of Gavet (pronounced gah-VAY). He has become a shadowing figure in art history. Brilliant and Miller scoured old records and archives to tease out the details of his life and career. In his day, he was an influential tastemaker.
In 1865 he had become an expert in contemporary art and was an ardent advocate of Jean-Francois Millet, who painted The Angelus, which is now in the Musee d'Orsay. (An interesting local connection: That painting so fascinated Salvador Dali that he created multiple interpretations, many of which are in the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.)
Gavet made a lot of money representing Millet, but by 1878 his interest had shifted to the Renaissance and medieval periods. He had amassed more than 1,000 objects and paintings, installing them in his elegant Paris apartment, and produced a catalog written by a Louvre curator, preparing to court the wealthy Americans coming to Europe on shopping expeditions.
The Vanderbilts bought about 340 pieces from his collection and installed them in Marble House. But the Vanderbilt marriage was unhappy. Alva titillated society in 1895 by divorcing her husband for infidelity, then quickly marrying her wealthy Newport neighbor, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, and moving into his equally grand manse. Marble House became the infrequent vacation home of her adult Vanderbilt sons. (Her daughter, Consuelo, was the Duchess of Marlborough and lived in England — Alva always aimed high — but Consuelo's is another story.)
Enter John Ringling, the 13th richest man in the world in 1925, the year he announced to Julius Bohler, his art dealer friend, his intention to establish a museum in Sarasota where he and his wife, Mable, wintered. Ringling had never been an art connoisseur and his motives were both altruistic and self-serving. He had major real estate holdings in the area and wanted to develop them commercially; a museum would add cachet. Between 1925 and 1931, he amassed the art that would become the permanent collection of the eponymous museum.
At that point, Alva, now Mrs. Belmont, wanted to sell some of Marble House's contents. She turned the matter over to the renowned dealer Joseph Duveen, who began shopping the Gothic Room contents around. William Randolph Hearst passed but Ringling bit. The collection had a snobbish provenance that appealed to him and it rounded out his growing collection in important areas. That it contained some pieces that were 19th century interpretations of older art didn't concern him, just as it hadn't concerned the Vanderbilts.
In 1927, Ringling paid $127,000 for the room's entire contents — 27 paintings, 40 sculptures, 15 pieces of furniture, 41 metal objects, 16 glass panels, 13 maiolica vessels, 155 cameos, 22 Renaissance timepieces, 10 wax miniatures and four pieces of reverse painted and gilded glass. It was a bargain. He installed most of it in his new museum but used some of it to decorate Ca d'Zan. A complete inventory of the purchase didn't seem to exist, and after Ringling's death in 1936, the collection was dispersed throughout the museum's galleries or put in storage, and any clear sense of the collection's complete contents forgotten.
Recently, though, Brilliant and Miller discovered a complete accounting of every object in the newly released papers of Duveen, made when he represented Mrs. Belmont. So Brilliant was able to identify things in the vault that seemed random purchases by Ringling as part of the original acquisition. Now they're displayed as a group for the first time in 82 years.
As I said earlier, much of the art is perched so high you can't really see it. Two of my favorite exceptions are the timepieces and wax miniatures, still in their original cases. The first group is simply exquisite; the second is a slightly bizarre but interesting cast of characters. Maybe a bit like the trio who are the real subject of this exhibition. Consider purchasing the handsome catalog for a better look at the objects, their histories and essays about each individual.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.