The Gavet-Vanderbilt-Ringling Collection
In 1927, Alva, long divorced from William Vanderbilt, asked the dealer Joseph Duveen to inspect her house, and in December of that year, he sold John Ringling nearly the entire contents of the Gothic Room. Many of the items are in Gallery 3 and 4.
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.
The Gavet collection at the core of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Arts medieval and early Renaissance holdings comprises of 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 (18301904), Alva Vanderbilt Belmont (18531933), and John Ringling (18661936).
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 Gavets as the embodiment of the chivalry,
piety, luxury, romance, and princely magnificence of a distant age to which the New World
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 Duveens New York showroom for sale there. Although Duveen retained for his stock the tapestries, two paintings including Botticellis 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 Rooms 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 dZan, the Ringlings 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.
The Ringlings 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.
Adapted from: http://ringling.org/Exhibitions_Gavet.aspx