A Chariot Race Mystery: Unraveling The History Of A 'Lost' Painting

Nov 12, 2020

by FSC Staff
Originally appeared in Southern News Magazine

When Florida Southern College President Anne Kerr unrolled the large, dirty, torn painting, Dr. Alex Rich was baffled.

The painting, which depicted a Roman chariot race, had been stored in a campus maintenance closet at the school for 60 years and had just been found. There was no signature and no identifying mark, except for a cryptic symbol in a corner.

Dr. Rich, assistant professor of art history, promised to do some research. He discovered that the painting was a version of a work by Hungarian master Alexander von Wagner that became one of the most famous images of the 19th century — and which may have influenced the climactic scene in the novel Ben-Hur, and the movies later based on it.

After FSC engaged a conservator to restore the canvas, it became the centerpiece of a fascinating exhibition this summer at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College. The exhibition, “The Von Wagner Code,” was created by Dr. Rich, who also is curator and director of galleries and exhibitions at the museum. It was the first-ever exhibition to draw attention to how the image became embedded in the popular imagination.

The painting, apparently the gift of a benefactor, Emile Watson, hung for a time in the Lake View Room of the College’s student lounge. Sometime in the early 1960s, however, the canvas was cut out of the frame, rolled up and stashed in a storage area in the maintenance department.

At first, based on a letter in the Florida Southern College archives, the painting was thought to be a 17th-century Italian work, but Dr. Rich quickly discovered the connection to von Wagner and how the image had been world renowned.

“At one time, von Wagner was a household name. The most surprising thing to me is how the image surpassed his own painting. It almost became a brand that stood for a product, like Xerox or Kleenex,” he said.

In 1873, von Wagner (1838-1919) painted a large work titled “The Roman Chariot Race,” which depicted a grand scene in an ancient Roman arena, with two charioteers behind teams of horses madly galloping toward the finish. It was displayed in an exhibition in Vienna and, as Dr. Rich puts it, “seems to have started a craze.”

A second version by von Wagner hung at the American Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. At the same time, an etching of the painting was reproduced and sold across the country. The popular print apparently inspired chariot races staged as civic events, advertisements used the image, and composer John Philip Sousa wrote a “Chariot Race” march.

The image also likely inspired novelist Lew Wallace to use a chariot race as the climactic scene in his Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Published in 1880, Wallace’s novel was made into a full length movie in 1925, again in 1959 — winning 11 Academy Awards — and in 2016. Dr. Rich believes it is all due to von Wagner.

“If not for the painting, there’s no scene in Ben-Hur,” he said.

Whether the painting was by von Wagner remained unclear until August 2018 — toward the end of the exhibition’s run — when Dr. Rich’s assistant found an inventory of the College’s art collection from the early 1950s. It listed a painting hung in the student lounge titled “Claudius Triumph” by “Alexander Wagner.”

According to Dr. Rich, it is believed von Wagner painted three versions of the chariot race. The only one still known to exist, painted in 1882, hangs in a museum in England. The College has found no documentation to establish when Watson donated the painting, or how he obtained it. The search continues.

Further conservation work is needed, Dr. Rich said. Although the painting was able to be displayed in the Polk Museum exhibition, it still cannot be hung normally or it would crumble under its own weight.

“The end goal is to raise the money to conserve it to the point it can be hung and framed,” he said. “I’d like to have a semipermanent installation at the museum.”

President Kerr expressed gratitude to donors who have helped with the restoration efforts.

“I am grateful to the many alumni who have contributed to the fund to fully restore it,” President Kerr said, “and to include it among the signature works in our Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College collection. We are grateful that Dr. Rich has had such success in tracing its provenance, and we look forward to sharing it with all our college friends, especially those in Polk County.”