Eight Speed Museum staff members lug an enormous wooden crate from the North Wing of the museum, up the front staircase and into a small gallery.
Gently, they lower it onto the floor and proceed to remove an orderly line of screws, before finally popping off the top to reveal an elaborate portrait of a woman in a powdered wig and a red crushed velvet gown.
“Today, we are welcoming home one of the great paintings in the collection,” says Kim Spence, the museum’s curator of prints, drawings and photographs. “It is a portrait of Madame Adelaide by Adelaide Labille-Guiard. She is coming home after being in Washington on-view at the National Gallery of Art.”
Madame Adelaide of France, the aunt of Louis XVI and daughter of Louis XV, ranked second only to the queen, Marie Antoinette, among the women of the French royal family. This portrait, by the princess’s official court painter, Labille-Guiard, presents her surrounded with details that attest to the noble legacy of the Bourbon family.
Labille-Guiard’s first version of this portrait, painted for the princess, now hangs at Versailles. This version remained in the artist’s possession throughout her life. Madame Adelaide, forced by the Revolution to flee France, died impoverished in Trieste in 1800.
“Madame Adelaide” is part of the Speed’s permanent collection. While at the National Gallery, it was part of a exhibition called “America Collects Eighteenth-Century French Painting.”
And it’s just one of the pieces that have been sent out from the Speed as part of its robust museum-to-museum lending program.
“The benefits for lending paintings like ‘Madame Adelaide’ are innumerable,” Spence says. “For the Speed, it’s a wonderful way for us to let people outside the city of Louisville, outside the state of Kentucky, see the fabulous work we have in our collection.”
Lending artwork also aids in advancing our collective understanding of art history.
“New scholarship comes through special exhibitions like this where you have an opportunity to examine works next to each other that would normally never be seen in that context,” Spence says.
But, there it’s quite the careful process to ensure the artworks are not damaged in transit. Upon arrival, “Madame Adelaide” spent 24 hours crated in the museum to acclimate to the temperature of the Speed.
Then came the actual move of the 250-pound portrait and frame.
“It takes great planning and communication so everyone knows every single step of the way when you are going to push, when you are going to pull,” Spence says.
As a result, “Madame Adelaide” made it safely back on the Speed’s walls, where visitors can see it hung starting Thursday afternoon.