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Exhibition at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art features an array of talented circus personalities
The Strobridge Lithographing Company Sells Brothers and Barrett: Mr. Wm. Showles and Miss Daisy Belmont, circa 1890.

SARASOTA, FLA.- Organized by The Ringling, Circus Celebrities showcases posters that include exceptional portraits of an array of talented circus personalities. Much like celebrities today, center ring stars of the American circus depended on the wide distribution of their images to build audiences and enthusiasm. Commercially printed lithographs were printed by the thousands to influence potential audiences and advertise the quality and excitement of the show that was coming to their town.

During the last decades of the 19th century, commercial lithography achieved an unparalleled level of excellence. Technological advancements allowed for printing multiple colors with rich details at reasonable costs. Without the instant gratification of radio, television, or internet, circuses depended heavily on posters to draw audiences to their big tops. As the commercial printing industry modernized, circuses were able to order a variety of designs to illustrate their attractions. Still, given the cost of the printing and posting these colorful advertisements, many designs were generalized, or at least printed without specific names to allow their use throughout the season and even over multiple years.

One of the most difficult measures of fame for a circus performer to achieve was to merit their own “paper,” especially impressive those select few performers whose portraits were included alongside images of their fantastic accomplishments. To pay for the design of a unique poster, much less a variety of designs at various sizes, the circus owners were investing heavily in the potential draw of a single performer or troupe. Such commitments were not made lightly and the posters were designed with a surprising amount of diligence in their depictions of the talented performers. Today these same posters offer modern eyes a glimpse of the extraordinary art of commercial lithography while also enticing us with the images of the men and women who entertained the masses in the early twentieth century.

The exhibition features 21 historic circus posters, drawn from the collection of Howard and Janice Tibbals. Ranging from 1881 to 1935, the posters illustrate the artistry of lithographic portraiture in the advertising of the American circus.

Curator: Jennifer Lemmer Posey, associate curator of the Circus Museum, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

This exhibition is organized by The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, USA.

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