A 24-by-48-foot mural, the largest painted by a single artist in the 20th century and equal in size to one wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, was moved last week from the lobby of Feld Entertainment in Vienna, Virginia, after being there for 22 years.
“The Greatest Show on Earth,” by artist William Woodward, is an oil-painting that has been donated to the Ringling Museum. It will be transported to Sarasota, Florida, just as Feld, a Washington-based company, moves its headquarters there.
The 77-year-old Woodward painted the mural on a simple scissor scaffolding—a process not unlike the one used by Michelangelo for the Sistine Chapel but taking less than one fifth the time. On Monday the painting was gently peeled and scraped from the wall of the lobby with “giant pastry knives,” “spatulas,” and, as Woodward calls them, “pizza flippers.”
“Every day at noon, people came down to the lobby to eat their lunches—even people who didn’t work for Feld Entertainment—to watch Bill Woodward paint this enormous wall,” recalls owner Kenneth Feld of the mural’s creation. “[His process] was extraordinary.”
The scene features acrobats, clowns, tightrope walkers, and jugglers—all artists Woodward met while on tour with the company to photograph inspiration for the design. “Every person represented in this image are people I knew—most of them [are] performers I hired,” says Feld of the scene in the mural.
The painting, begun in 1988, took two years to complete. Page Conservation, Feld’s chosen restoration group, will touch up the panels and refresh the adhesive on the back; it will then be transported to the Ringling Museum, its new permanent home.
Built by John Ringling, the museum displays paintings and sculptures by artists such as Titian, Tintoretto, van Dyck, and Velázquez, as well as the largest collection of Rubens in the Western Hemisphere. Just under 400,000 people come to visit a year.
On losing a beloved piece of his workplace, Feld says, “No one walked by the lobby without smiling at this mural. Every morning, when I walked through the front door, I knew that no matter what I had to face every day, I could glance up at the painting and be reminded of why we were here, what we are all about, and how we bring happiness to so many people.”