John Ringling's Art

Many people seem to think that John's art collection started with the purchase of the 4 Rubens cartoons, even before he was thinking of an art museum. But, here is what really happened in chronological order:

His first collection: Random
After his marriage to Mable in 1905, John started to buy paintings he liked. No particular period or style. Just random. At one time he showed his collection to the Director of the Chicago Art Institute who said that they were worthless. Ouch. John then threw them away.

His second collection: French Impressionists
John then started to buy French impressionists paintings. It was a new trend. No major names. Just what he liked and, of course, at a reasonable price. Then in the early 1920s, when he befriended art connoisseurs in New York he saw that his collection was that of an amateur and he gave the paintings away.

For 20 years, he had bought what was in vogue, only to discover that he had made poor choices and owned valueless art.

His third collection
First major purchase: Bronzes from Chiurazzi

Ritz Carlton:
In 1925, when John started building his Ritz Carlton hotel on Longboat Key, he started to buy ornaments and art for the hotel. Albert Keller, the president of the Ritz Hotel Corporation in America, introduced John to his friend Julius B hler, a well-know and trusted art dealer in Munich (although his business letterhead states Lucerne, Switzerland). Together they traveled to Italy on a shopping expedition in 1925. They bought statues, columns, marble doorways and the bronzes from the Chiurazzi factory.

His third (for second see below) major purchase: various masters and the Rubens cartoons
At the end of the trip to the Chiurazzi factory, he told B hler of his and Mable's idea for an art museum in Sarasota, and that an architect was already making sketches. B hler was thunder-struck, but shortly after he buys for John paintings by Titian, Velasquez, Tintoretto, another Titian and the Anton Pesne paintings of the German princesses.
Then 5 months after John's initial purchases in Naples, B hler tells John about 4 large Rubens cartoons for sale by the Duke of Westminster for about $100,000. They had been placed on auction in 1924, but when total bids (for 3 cartoons) were only $10,000, they were withdrawn. John was very much in favor of buying them. In May 1926 B hler bought the 4 cartoons somewhat reluctantly, claiming that the asking price was excessive in view of the oversized canvases and the current disfavor for Rubens' high Baroque style. He then sold them to John. who was delighted with the energy and monumental size of the figures. His museum was still in the planning stage and he was able to include a gallery, especially for the cartoons. (Then in 1980 the Museum was able to buy a 5th cartoon.)

His second major purchase: Two rooms, the bronze gates and paintings from the Astor Mansion
However, just before the Triumph of the Eucharist deal, B hler and John attended the auction of the contents of the Vincent Astor Mansion on 65th Street and 5th Avenue in NY. Mrs Astor had passed away. John bought, with guidance from B hler, 3 large French paintings (a.o. Dans les Landes, and Le Campagne en Russie), and many of the opulent appointments to decorate the galleries in the new museum, plus the bronze gateway (now the Art Museum's entrance), and 2 entire rooms with reproductions of 17th and 18th-century French salons, designed by Richard Morris Hunt.

His fourth major purchase: various masters and Pieter Olycan
In that summer of 1926 he went once more to Europe and bought in Genoa Head of a Monk by Rubens (now studio) and Granacci's Assumption of the Virgin.
In 1927 JR bought Rembrandt's Saint John and the Evangelist (for $76,000) and he made his most costly single purchase, through B hler, the Pieter Olycan painting, for $100,000, at a private sale in England. He also bought Madame de Bourbon Conti and Madonna and Child (then Bellini). Later he bought A Sultana of Venice.

His fifth major purchase: The Vanderbilt , Emile Gave collection
In early 1928 Sir Joseph Duveen had brought to his NY studio and outstanding assembly of paintings, furniture, decorative arts and liturgical objects from the collection of Emile Gavet, a rich French industrialist of the 19th century. The collection was originally purchased by William Vanderbilt, for his Marble House. When her husband had divorced her mrs Vanderbilt wanted to clear some stuff. She put up the Emil Gavet collection for sale. A collection of furniture, cabinets, clerical chests, Renaissance watches, jewels, porcelain, glass and 25 paintings. John bought the entire offering for $125,000. Most of these paintings are now in Gallery 3 and 4. One painting was Piero di Cosimo's The Building of a Palace. Two paintings have been stolen from the Museum walls in the early 1950s. One of them was a Bruegel.

His sixth major purchase: The Cypriot collection.
The objects were purchased as part of the NY Metropolitan Museum's sale of 'duplicates' in the Cesnola collection in two sales in March and April 1928 by Anderson Galleries. JR bought more than 1,000 objects, guided in his selection by Karl Freund of the Anderson staff. No less than three-fourth of the entire offering became his. With this purchase JR's collection formed the largest assembly of archaic Greek art in America, outside the Metropolitan museum.

His last (seventh) major purchase: The Earl of Yarborough Collection:
In July 1929, after Mable's death, John went to England to the sale of an important British collection belonging to the Earl of Yarborough. Among them was Il Guercino's Annunciation, two irregular panels that had hung over an arch in a church at Reggia Emilia until 1803. There was doubt about its authenticity and Ringling bought the panels for $56. Later they were certified as Guercino's work and gained enormously in value. He also bought Poussin's The Holy Family, a series of seven Sebastian Bourdon paintings: The Seven Acts of Mercy.
In this period he added 50 Dutch paintings, early Flemish, German and some pre-Renaissance Italian work. The earliest dating from about 1350. Labourage Nivernais was bought for $230. This painting was out of favor, also because of its large size. In 1888 it was sold for $23,000. He also bought Aeneas in the Elysian Fields and Luttichuys' Portrait of a Gentleman, all for $1,400. By Autumn 1931 Ringling ceased buying.

Let's Count:
In less than 6 years, from 1925 - 1931, John added more than 400 paintings to his collection, bringing the total to 625 and several times that many art objects.

JR bought many paintings from Christies, because he trusted them. Almost all the Italian and Baroque paintings were bought in London and a few in NY.

In 1970 the Museum bought its first modern painting by Sid Soloman.

His Museum:
Mable saw the Museum building finished in 1929, but without the paintings installed. In early 1930 it was all installed.  B hler had sent a guy from Switzerland, called Fisher, to hang the paintings. He hung them two or three layers high. Then in 1948 Austin came in and changed it all to a simpler look of mainly one layer. B hler came back to the Sarasota Museum in 1948 to advise on the reinstallation.

The museum was permanently opened to the public on Sunday, 27 January 1932.

When JR died, they did an inventory in 1937. It was thought that John spent probably $3 million on his art collection. They arrived at $14 million for the art and $27 million for the estate, but almost all was mortgaged to keep the creditors at bay (although Ringling, The Early Years states that that total value of the estate was $23 million and that many mistakes were made e.g. they valued the cast stone statues on the museum's roof as valuable Italian renaissance marble sculptures).It would take 10 years of probation to sort it all out.

- Ringling. The Florida Years, 1911-1936
- Presentations to Docent class of 2000 by Aaron de Groft and David Weeks on January 18, 2000

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