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John Ringling: Art Collector

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Welcome to the research guide for John Ringling, art collector and founder of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Use this guide to find books, articles, and other resources for information on John Ringling's legacy and his passion for collecting grand works of art.


John Ringling was much more than just the Circus King, a moniker by which many people know him. What many people may not know is that by 1925, John Ringling was one of the 13 richest men in the world, a fact that was not simply due to his circus business. He was an industrialist involved in many different affairs; he was involved in railroads, ranching, banking, the oil industry, real estate development, and, of course, the Ringling Bros. Circus. Most notably, however, he was an aesthete, a self-taught art connoisseur and collector, and his legacy to the State of Florida is substantial.

In just a short period of time, Ringling amassed a magnificent collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings; in fact, during his lifetime, Ringling had amassed the largest private collection of paintings by Peter Paul Rubens in the United States. Rubens' Triumph of the Eucharist series is an extraordinary aspect of Ringling's acquisitions, as they are the only large-scale Rubens paintings outside of Europe. Some other notable artists in his collection are Cranach, Velasquez, Piero di Cosimo, Veronese, Titian, Poussin, and Frans Hals. His vision for the collection was to build an art museum in Sarasota in order to establish the burgeoning city as a cultural and educational center.

With the help of architect John H. Phillips, Ringling designed a 21-gallery museum modeled on the Florentine Uffizi Gallery, which is highlighted by his collection of more than 600 Old Master paintings. The courtyard is filled with replicas of Classical, Renaissance, and Baroque sculpture, including a bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David. Ringling also built a winter home on his Sarasota estate for himself and his wife, Mable, which they named Ca d'Zan (meaning "House of John" in the Venetian dialect), and they furnished it with fine and decorative arts. Five stories tall, the 36,000 square foot Venetian Gothic style mansion has 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms, and is now part of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

Ringling acquired and vigorously studied art books, which would become the foundation of the Ringling Art Library. There are more than 500 titles in John Ringling's personal library, located in the special collections of the Ringling Art Library. The collection was originally housed in Ca d'Zan and was relocated to the Art Library in 1946; it includes some rare versions of classic art history volumes that students still study today. The magnificent volumes in this private library were not collected for their value as rare books, but for their content. Ringling was an autodidact and he acquired art books and auction catalogs for the purpose of studying them to improve his competency for critically assessing works of art. This collection offers insight into the life and private thoughts of John Ringling, as well as insight into who he was as a collector.

John Ringling's inception of the museum indeed established Sarasota as a cultural and educational center and was his way of securing his and Mable's legacy to Florida; upon his death, Ringling bequeathed his entire 66-acre estate to the State of Florida as a way to bring European culture to its residents. The Ringling Museum of Art is now the State Art Museum of Florida and is under the stewardship of Florida State University, making it one of the largest university museum campuses in the United States.

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