Exhibition Invites Guests to Crack the von Wagner Code

A painting of a chariot race found tucked away on the Florida Southern College campus unearthed a mystery and sent Dr. Alex Rich, PMA curator and director of galleries and exhibitions, on a quest to discover the story behind the work. 

The painting in question appears to be an early version of Hungarian artist Alexander von Wagner’s “The Chariot Race,” which is believed to have been painted originally in the 1870s. For all of the answers Rich has unearthed in his search for information on the painting, many questions remain. 

“The Von Wagner Code” is a curated exhibition that poses those questions about the mysteries of the painting’s history to the public. It is believed to be the only exhibition of von Wagner’s work ever held in the United States, Rich said.

In the Closet

The work in question measures 52 inches by 72 inches and was gifted to Florida Southern in 1953 as a 17thcentury Italian Baroque painting by Domenico Fetti. At some point, the work was admired more for its frame than the painting itself, so the canvas was removed, rolled up and replaced with a mirror.

In 2016, the tattered painting was discovered in a storage closet, along with paperwork that documented it as a Fetti painting. Rich had his doubts. The painting of horses and a chariot in a Roman forum arena simply didn’t look like an Italian Baroque painting, he said.

After performing initial conservation work to the damaged canvas in February 2017, art conservationist Rustin Levinson confirmed Rich and other PMA staffers’ suspicions when she determined the painting couldn’t be older than a 19thcentury work, based on the materials used. 

Rich researched further and confirmed that it appeared to be a variant of von Wagner’s famous “The Chariot Race.” Although von Wagner was known to have painted several versions on the theme, Rich located the only presumably extant version of the work in the Manchester Art Gallery in England dated 1882. 

Commercial Popularity

In its various early versions, “The Chariot Race” was wildly popular in its day. It was commercially reproduced, and it was common for American families to have a print of the painting in their homes.

In 1875, the largest copperplate etching in the U.S. at that time was made after this painting. It is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection. The Smithsonian has loaned the work to PMA as part of the upcoming exhibition. That black and white image measures 18 1/8 inches by 28 1/8 inches. 

Proof of the painting’s popularity is seen in various art forms. Von Wagner’s painting inspired John Philip Sousa to write the battle piece “The Chariot Race” in 1888. The Museum has secured the original sheet music from the Library of Congress to be part of the PMA’s exhibition, and an orchestral recording of the march will play alongside it.

Von Wagner’s painting also inspired many of the literary and film depictions we associate today with Roman chariot racing, including the cinematography for “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” in 1925. The movie was based on Lew Wallace's popular 1880 novel of the same name, which was influenced heavily by von Wagner’s paintings on the theme from the previous decade. Prior to the movie, a theatrical adaptation of Wallace’s novel was produced first in 1899, and the commercial advertising for the play replicates von Wagner’s painting.

The Museum has secured from the Library of Congress original posters from a 1901 “Ben-Hur” stage play and from the 1925 film for “The Von Wagner Code” exhibition. Rich also discovered 1916 silent movie playing cards with images of von Wagner’s painting on the cards. A deck of the cards is among the several dozen objects that illustrate the widespread popularity of the painting as part of the exhibition.

“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.” 

Clues in the Painting

The reason behind the exhibition’s name is because the Museum is looking for evidence that the featured painting is definitively by von Wagner, Rich said.  

As part of the search for answers, Rich located the original study for the painting, discovering that it had been sold at auction to a private buyer in Denmark in 2013. Now held in the collection of a Paris gallery, the original study is on its way to Lakeland, on loan to the PMA exhibition. The Museum hopes it could yield a host of answers.

The painting upon which “The Von Wagner Code” exhibition is built is only the left half of the scene in von Wagner’s finalized and best-known Manchester version. Guests will be invited to examine elements of the painting for clues to its authenticity. For example, the lower left corner of the painting features a chariot wheel that has spun off. On the wheel is a symbol. Does it read “VW” for Von Wagner, or something else?

Come see for yourself when the exhibition opens June 23. It runs through Sept. 16. Admission to the Museum is free daily.