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The Greatest Show on Earth, in the Flesh and on Canvas.

Washington, DC.  Don’t be alarmed if a herd of well-groomed elephants interrupts your commute home this evening. The annual Pachyderm Parade is set to commence at 8 pm in downtown DC, trumpeting the arrival of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus to the metropolitan area.

In honor of the event, I am posting an article I wrote for class about William Woodward, the artist commissioned to paint a mammoth mural of the Greatest Show on Earth.

The Greatest Show on Earth Mural by William Woodward, 1990. Image via WUSF news

The Greatest Show on Earth Mural by William Woodward, 1990. Image via WUSF news

The Greatest Mural on Earth. 

When Pope Julius II wanted to glorify the greatest church on earth, he hired Michelangelo. When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey wanted to commemorate “The Greatest Show on Earth,” they hired William Woodward.

The mural would immortalize 45 performers, 12 elephants, 11 tigers, six lions, two alligators and one single-horned goat known as “the world’s only living unicorn.” It would take two years to execute, 968 square feet of canvas, and a hand surgery. For 22 years it would adorn the circus’ business headquarters in Virginia until it would be peeled from the wall, rolled up slice by slice like enormous slabs of prosciutto, and shipped to Florida for a ceremonious unveiling before a crowd of hundreds, including the very same clowns and acrobats whose visages had been captured on canvas decades before.

But before all that could happen, Woodward would have to study his subject.

Woodward holds up the silver dollar he designed. He had this particular dollar made into a belt buckle.

Woodward holds up the silver dollar he designed. He had this particular dollar made into a belt buckle.

In 1989, Woodward had just wrapped up a rather stifling project designing a silver dollar for the U.S. Treasury when an exciting offer rolled in. Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment which owns Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, wanted to commission a full scale mural of “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Woodward – whose grandfather had painted sideshow banners for the circus “freak shows” at the turn of the century- was the perfect choice.

Feld had just one suggestion: get Gunther Gebel-Williams in there.

By 1989 Gebel-Williams had performed with Ringling Brothers for two decades, and had earned the title of “The Greatest Animal Trainer of All Time.” Woodward, 78, who embedded himself in circus life during his research, says of Gebel-Williams,

“He could walk into a cage with fourteen full grown Bengal tigers and in a normal tone of voice say ‘Sit’ and they would all sit. He never yelled. I know people who can’t do that with two little human children!” 

Gebel-Williams was a true animal-whisperer, something Woodward would explore for himself.

“If you hug an elephant you can hear its heartbeat: boom……. boom…… boom…… and you think in your head to communicate: I……really……do……love……you…… It’s interspecies communication. It’s a poetic thing!”

Armed with hundreds of photos of his subjects, Woodward returned to his newly rented warehouse – the mural wouldn’t fit in his studio- where he sketched his scheme, photographed it, projected it onto a 22 x 42 foot canvas, augmented it by 400% and finally executed the opus in oil and acrylic. The brushwork alone took six months and left Woodward with such a crippled right hand that he required surgery. (After the operation, his doctor warned him that his hand would “look like hamburger”).

Woodward's hand required surgery after he completed the mural. His doctor warned it would "look like hamburger."

Woodward’s hand required surgery after he completed the mural. His doctor warned it would “look like hamburger.”

Since then Woodward’s scarred hand has produced other works and his mural has made a new home at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. On January 17th, Woodward reunited with his former subjects for the grand unveiling. Gebel-Williams couldn’t be there – he passed away in 2001 – but his likeness presided over the room from atop a magnificent black elephant at the center of the mural, just as he had done in the glory days of the Greatest Show on Earth.

Practical Info:

The Pachyderm Parade will commence in downtown DC at 8 pm. For the route, click here or follow @DCElephantWalk on Twitter for updates.

“The Greatest Show on Earth” mural is now on display at the Circus Museum in the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota Florida.

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