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Madame Kovar, Ringling Lion Tamer (1944), oil on canvas measuring 35×30 inches by Jerry Farnsworth (1895-1982)

The Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida campus, Gainesville, Florida celebrated 30 years last year. Separate from the celebration was a more impressive feat: Jacksonville, Florida residents Samuel (Sam) and Roberta (Robbie) Vickers selected the museum as the next home to their 1,200-piece, Florida-themed art collection. The first exhibit since the donation runs until August 1—better hurry and see it—titled “A Florida Legacy: Gift of Samuel H. and Roberta T. Vickers.” It highlights 162 paintings from the massive collection featuring 700 artists, with 128 women included. One painting captivated me: Madame Kovar, Ringling Lion Tamer (1944).

The oil on canvas painting measures 35 x 30 inches and was completed by Jerry Farnsworth (12.31.1895-12.08.1982). Farnsworth was an American portraiture artist who ran 2 art schools aptly named Farnsworth School of Art. One was located on Siesta Key, outside of Sarasota, Florida. (Sarasota was the winter home of John Ringling and location of his art museum and stunning mansion Ca’d’Zan, eventually the Circus Museum) Farnsworth was called the “father figure of the Sarasota Art Colony.” In 1944, he completed the painting. It is unknown whether it was prior to the July 6th tragedy.

On July 6, 1944, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was performing in Hartford, Connecticut. Madame May Kovar had finished performing with 5 panthers when the nation’s worst fire erupted. May quickly led her animals to the chutes that accessed the cages. Then she rescued several children, sending them to safety. May, herself, remained with her animals until the fire was extinguished. Over 700 people were injured and 169 killed. Four men were convicted of manslaughter—only to be blanket pardoned soon thereafter. However, May’s story doesn’t end there.

In 1949, May, age 42, had left Ringling and was working in California. Still working professionally as Madame Kovar, May was now called May Kovar Schafer and had three children: Michael Kovar, 13; May Kovar, 14; and Sandra Schafer, 3. On December 20 or 21, May was attempting to break a lion named Sultan. She was working in the cage using a chair and a whip. Her children watched. Sultan lunged and mauled May, biting her neck and severing her spine. The older children, Michael and May, grabbed sticks and entered the cage trying to poke the lion into releasing their mother. They failed. Rudy Miller, a 59-year-old elephant trainer, heard the screams and rescued the children and reclaimed May’s lifeless body.

Looking at the painting, I saw confidence and a sense of pride. The red jacket contrasted with the green background. It was slightly haunting. I didn’t know who May Kovar Schafer was; however, I took a picture and decided to research. Madame Kovar was incredibly brave. And Jerry Farnsworth captured her essence in this breathtaking painting. Head to the Harn, where admission is free, to see this haunting picture.