Ringling Museum mural captures the circus in a huge, Baroque way

The Greatest Show on Earth, a mural two stories tall by William Woodward, was recently given to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art by Feld Entertainment and the Feld family.
The Greatest Show on Earth, a mural two stories tall by William Woodward, was recently given to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art by Feld Entertainment and the Feld family.
Published Jan. 22, 2013


Circus entrepreneur and museum founder John Ringling would have loved it: a monumentally sized mural that celebrates the drama, color and movement of the circus, his circus, that is now in the circus museum on the grounds of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. The Greatest Show on Earth measures 42 by 22 feet and is more than twice the size of the largest of the celebrated, heroically scaled paintings by Peter Paul Rubens that are the centerpiece of the museum's famous art collection.

And it has the same baroque drama as Rubens' work.

Kenneth Feld, who is chief executive of the family-owned Feld Entertainment, which now owns Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, hired painter William Woodward in 1989 to create it for the corporate headquarters in Tysons Corner, Va. When they recently decided to relocate the headquarters to Ellenton, the organization decided to give the mural to the Ringling Museum. It was installed in the Ringling's Tibbals Learning Center, which is devoted to the circus, and unveiled Saturday.

What a great fit it is. Almost 30 performers are portrayed along with lions, tigers, horses, elephants and dogs. The people are all real members of the circus, past or present, whom Woodward met when he attended performances and hung out behind the scenes for a year researching the project. Kenneth Feld is dressed as a ringmaster, and the artist himself occupies a corner of the work as an animal trainer overseeing an elephant exiting a train car.

"It's a serious painting of an entertaining subject," Woodward said in a telephone interview from his home in Virginia. "I hope people get as much pleasure looking at it as I did painting it."

Woodward, who has had a distinguished teaching career and is now professor emeritus of fine art at George Washington University, has had other large mural commissions, including one for the new visitors center at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and another at the Lincoln Memorial, but this was by far his largest and most challenging.

"It wasn't the size," he said. "My father and grandfather painted large billboards. It's sustaining the same level of enthusiasm over a long period of time that was a great challenge."

It was also an especially personal work for the artist.

"My grandfather and his brother joined the circus in the 1900s. My father painted the sideshow freaks before he left to paint signs for the Coca-Cola Co. He used to take us to the circus and sometimes introduce us to the performers. We adored it. He died when I was 38 (Woodward is now 78) and when I got this commission, all these memories came rushing back."

Because it was a commission, Woodward submitted preliminary drawings to Feld, who told him it was beautiful but too generic, not the Greatest Show on Earth.

So Woodward attended dozens of performances and chose specific people and animals to be a part of the narrative. Viewers will know many of them, and a guide identifies them. Among them:

• Gunther Gebel-Williams, who ruled the rings from 1969 to 1990 with his animal acts.

• Lou Jacobs, a beloved clown who was the first living person to be featured on a postage stamp.

• King Tusk, the largest land mammal to travel with the circus.

Painting the mural took about another year, with Woodward having to rent a warehouse to hang the canvas panels while he painted. He used two assistants from time to time (one his brother) but did most of the painting and all of the detail work himself, beginning with a neutral underpainting over which he applied layers of oil paint thinned to glazes to achieve a lustrous and rich effect similar to the techniques of many Baroque painters. Because there were cutouts in the original, he added new areas, like the clowns peeking through a door at the bottom, to make it symmetrical.

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John Ringling would not know any of the performers in it, having died in 1936, but he would recognize the timeless spectacle Woodward has captured.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at or (727) 893-8293.