Exhibition Focuses on Mystery of Possible Masterwork Discovery

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 17thcentury 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 19thcentury “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.orgfor more information, and to RSVP for the reception.