Lakeland, Florida – A large-scale painting of a Roman chariot race found in a closet on the Florida Southern College campus unearthed a mystery and became the impetus for a home-grown exhibition opening June 23 at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College.
“The Von Wagner Code” is a curated exhibition centered on the rediscovered painting that appears to be an early, lost version of Hungarian artist Alexander von Wagner’s acclaimed masterpiece, “The Chariot Race” of 1882, now in the Manchester Art Gallery. Several early versions are known to have been painted originally in the 1870s but have vanished.
This exhibition is also believed to be the first-ever museum show focused on von Wagner and his work, said Dr. Alex Rich, PMA curator and director of galleries and exhibitions.
The fragile but newly-conserved painting measures 52 inches by 72 inches and was gifted to Florida Southern in 1953 as a 17th century Italian Baroque painting by Domenico Fetti. In 2016, it was discovered in a storage closet, along with paperwork that documented it as a Fetti painting of the 1600s. Rich had his doubts.
A bit of research confirmed it to be instead a variant of von Wagner’s 19th century “The Chariot Race,” which was wildly popular in its day and is a staple of art history textbooks. His painting heavily influenced Lew Wallace’s popular 1880 novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” which went on to be adapted to the stage and screen.
Von Wagner’s painting was commercially reproduced within years of its first U.S. exhibition in the 1870s, and it was common for American families to have a print of the painting in their homes.
Works that speak to the painting’s popularity that are part of this exhibition include:
• From the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s collection, an 1875 copperplate etching made after the painting, which was heralded as the largest in the U.S. at the time.
• From the Library of Congress, the 1896 original sheet music of John Philip Sousa’s battle piece “The Chariot Race,” which von Wagner’s painting inspired.
• Also from the Library of Congress, original posters from a 1901 “Ben-Hur” stage play and the 1925 film of the same name. Von Wagner’s painting inspired the imagery and cinematography for these productions.
• From the collection of a Paris art gallery, the only locatable original study for the painting. It was purchased at auction in 2013 by a private buyer in Denmark.
“The Chariot Race” was so popular that the San Francisco Weekly Examiner placed advertisements in many Mid-western newspapers — including the Kansas Agitator as early as 1892 — offering a print of “The Chariot Race” as an enticement to those who subscribed to it.
“All of these cultural artifacts are evidence of this painting’s impact,” Rich said. “Part of the story we wish to convey in the exhibition is the popularity and legacy of this painting and of von Wagner, and the fact that we may have uncovered an important missing piece of this complex history.”
An opening reception for “The Von Wagner Code” is scheduled for June 29, 6-8:30 p.m., and the exhibition runs through Sept. 16. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. The Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College is located at 800 E. Palmetto St. Visit www.polkmuseumofart.org for more information, and to RSVP for the reception.
About the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College
The Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida, is a private, not-for-profit academic museum dedicated to promoting inspirational and engaging arts experiences for all. It is one of the Top 10 art museums in the State of Florida, an Affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and the only art museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums serving the 666,000 residents of Polk County. Museum hours are 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesdays – Saturdays; 1-5 p.m. Sundays (closed Sundays June 1 through Labor Day) and closed Mondays and major holidays. Admission is free for everyone year-round, thanks to the following organizations: MIDFLORIDA Credit Union; the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Foundation; and the Share Foundation. The museum is fully accessible.
About Florida Southern College
Founded in 1883, Florida Southern College is the oldest private comprehensive college in Florida. The College maintains its commitment to academic excellence through 72 undergraduate programs and distinctive graduate programs in business administration, education, and nursing. Florida Southern has a 15:1 student-to-faculty ratio; is an award-winning national leader in engaged learning; and boasts 30 NCAA Division II national championships. It is ranked among the Top 20 Regional Universities in the South by U.S. News and World Report; named a Top Baccalaureate College by Washington Monthly; and included in The Princeton Review’s 382 Best Colleges, The Fiske Guide to Colleges 2018, and Forbes magazine’s America’s Top Colleges Guide. The College is committed to the development of the whole student through vibrant student life programs that prepare graduates to make a positive, consequential impact on society. FSC is conveniently located within an hour’s drive of both Orlando and Tampa. FSC is home to the world’s largest single-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012. Named the “Most Beautiful Campus in the Nation” for two consecutive years by The Princeton Review and one of the nations “Ten College Campuses with the Best Architecture” by Architectural Digest, Florida Southern is an internationally-recognized place of beauty and academic excellence.