The taste for Gothic

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

To wealthy American collectors during the Gilded Age, the appeal of medieval and early Renaissance art was considerable. Seeing themselves as the new aristocracy and wanting to re-create for themselves the prestige and trappings of European nobility, they sought objects that they felt embodied the chivalry, piety, luxury, romance, and magnificence of that distant age. Gothic Art in the Gilded Age: Medieval and Renaissance Treasures in the Gavet-Vanderbilt-Ringling Collection, an exhibition opening this month at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, brings to light an outstanding but little known group of medieval and Renaissance productions, and explores the taste for the Gothic in Europe and the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Among the most avid of the American collectors of medieval and early Renaissance art were William K. Vanderbilt and his wife Alva, whose architect Richard Morris Hunt led them on a shopping trip to Paris in the summer of 1889 to find furnishings for Marble House, their summer residence in Newport, Rhode Island. In Paris the Vanderbilts were introduced to the large and comprehensive private collection assembled by the Parisian architect-decorator, real estate speculator, part-time curator, and dealer Émile Gavet, who had fashioned his collection, housed in his residence near the cathedral of Notre Dame, to appeal to visiting Americans.

A large group of Gavet’s paintings, sculptures, metalwork, furniture, ceramics, cameos, tapestries, and other pieces made across Europe between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, were quickly purchased and sent to Newport, where the Vanderbilts displayed them in a “Gothic Room” inspired by the iconic 1453 Hôtel Jacques Coeur in Bourges, France, as well as by Gavet’s own apartment. Following her divorce from Vanderbilt and marriage to Oliver H. P. Belmont, Alva opened the room by appointment and for public tours, with the proceeds benefiting the suffrage movement, of which she was a proud supporter. Living largely in France before World War I and from the 1920s on, Alva enlisted the influential dealer Joseph Duveen to sell the Newport collection for her. All but a handful of the objects were purchased by the then budding collector John Ringling for his planned winter residence and art museum in Sarasota.

Today these 350 or so items are scattered throughout the Ringling Museum’s galleries and storage vaults, where they form the core of the museum’s medieval and Renaissance holdings. Gothic Art in the Gilded Age will reassemble the collection first at the museum, and next spring at Marble House in Newport, offering visitors the chance to see the varied ways in which different collectors responded to and adapted the visual language and arts of the period. There is a catalogue by an international team of scholars published by the museum and a symposium on the subject of medieval art in the United States scheduled there for February 26-27, 2010.

Gothic Art in the Gilded Age: Medieval and Renaissance Treasures in the Gavet-Vanderbilt-Ringling Collection  •  John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida  •  December 16 to April 4, 2010  •

Images from above: Triptych by the circle of Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-1550), c. 1520s. Oil on three shaped wood panels, 36 by 40 1⁄4 inches. Ringling Museum,
Ringling bequest.
The Virgin of the Annuciation by Álvaro Pires de Évora (active 1411-1434), c. 1420-1425. Tempera and gold on wood, 58 1⁄2 by 20 1⁄2 inches, including the original  frame. John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida; bequest of John Ringling.