Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Ringling Museum & A Pastel Portrait

John Ringling, famously known as one of the Ringling Bros., was not only a circus man but an art collector who travelled to Europe to purchase many works of the Old Masters, Baroque painters and others. In 1931, he opened his Museum of Art to the public in Sarasota. (See

Trina and I visited the Museum yesterday. I don't think I've ever seen so many barn-sized paintings by Rubens gathered into one vast room. Gallery after gallery featured painters like Rubens and Velasquez, as well as a scattering of more modern painters. I saw two small landscapes by Bierstadt and a portrait by Robert Henri.

Disappointing, though, was the fact that a third of the paintings in one wing had been draped over with plastic dropcloths for renovations. Oddly, this wing was not closed; apparently the museum director thought the clear dropcloths permitted an acceptable view of the paintings. Imagine looking at a poor reproduction of a six-foot painting in a cheap book. A portrait by Franz Hals had the clearest piece of plastic over it, but I still couldn't see the brushwork, and that is what Hals is noted for. Frustrating, to be sure.

One of the most stunning works was a full-length portrait of Marie Antoinette in pastel by Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842.) The wall placard didn't give the portrait's dimensions, but I reckoned it to be 8 feet by 5. A close look at the painting showed that, at some point in the past, it had been ripped into three pieces and suffered two serious punctures. (Perhaps by mobs during the French Revolution? Vigée-Lebrun was able to flee to Italy, but Marie Antoinette was not so lucky.) Pastel dust dotted the inside of the glazing, along with a conservator's beard hair.

But despite these failings, the pastel is phenomenal. Pastel seems to be a better medium for presenting the illusion of flesh than oil. The surrounding oil portraits, all by other artists, glistened unnaturally; the pastel represented the soft, inner glow of skin more successfully.

Self-Portrait (oil) by Vigée-Lebrun
Image from ABC Gallery (

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