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26 June, 2013
John Ringling
Except for the artists, no one in the art world is more important than a knowledgeable, cultured, art collector. It makes no difference whether that individual buys the work of living artists or those long dead, the likes and dislikes of this person, and the money represented by his or her tastes is what largely decides whether the work of a given artist is merely "good" or to be considered "great." What the collector is willing to pay at auction determines the "value" of an artist's work and indeed, whether that artist is, in fact, collectible. Sometimes that collector is not, in fact, an individual, but an institution--a museum, or academic organisation. But even then, an individual, or group of them, makes the decision to buy and for how much, thus determining the artistic standing of an artist. Quite often individual collectors are fabulously wealthy with more money than they know what to do with. That was certainly the case with one of the most interesting American art collectors of all time. For a while, during the early 1920s, he was reputed to be one of the ten wealthiest men in America. His name was John Ringling.

When you hear the Ringling name, art probably isn’t the first thing that comes to your mind. Still today, just as it did a hundred years ago, it means first and foremost, the circus. But John Ringling was no crass, exploitive P. T. Barnum. He was a consummate business entrepreneur, and cultured gentleman. He and his wife, Mable, travelled yearly to Europe, not just to recruit new circus acts, but to visit all the great museums on the continent, immersing themselves totally in the great pool of world art. What he didn't know about art collecting, John Ringling learned the hard way, or through the art books he devoured nightly in place of sleep. As one might expect, given his background as a showman, he gravitated toward the Baroque era and especially the work of Peter Paul Rubens. He bought four of the largest paintings Rubens ever created including the massive Abraham Receiving Bread and Wine from Melchizedek. Painted in the 1620s at the height of Rubens' career, they were, in fact, cartoons for a series of enormous tapestries commissioned by the sister of the King of Spain. His favourites also included work by van Dyck, Velázquez, Frans Hals, Poussin, Veronese, and Tiepolo.

John Ringling was born to immigrant parents in 1866, in McGregor Iowa, the sixth of nine children, five of whom became the famous Ringling Brothers. Through shrewd management and mergers with other, smaller circuses, including Barnum & Bailey's, the "Greatest Show on Earth" became no idle boast. His personal holdings in real estate, mining, and petroleum gave him the money, during the boom years of the 1920s, to indulge his collecting genius. In just over four years, he purchased over 500 paintings intended from the very beginning to form the bulk of a great museum. Today, that museum exists next to his fabulous $1.5 million Venetian-style mansion near the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus in Sarasota, Florida overlooking Tampa Bay. The complex also includes an Italian opera theatre, imported and reconstructed from Asolo, Italy, and a Circus Museum, both added by the state of Florida after World War II. The museum itself is a work of art, an Italian style villa with a large sculpture courtyard dominated by a life-size replica of Michelangelo's David. Ironically, it was Ringling's passion for art collecting which led directly to his economic downfall. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the circus suffered as did his personal finances, which he'd stretched to the limit in pursuing his dream of creating a great museum. He died virtually penniless in 1936. But despite dire, economic straits during his declining years, contributions from a devoted household staff and circus employees allowed this beloved showman to continue to live and die in his usual Baroque splendour.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
26 September 1999

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