A Prized Portrait

By Remy Sisk

Towering over visitors’ heads at the Speed Art Museum is the “Portrait of Madame Adélaïde,” a masterful oil-on-canvas c. 1787 painting that stands at nearly nine feet tall and six feet wide weighing over 400 pounds. Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s striking rendering of Madame Marie Adélaïde de France, the French princess and daughter of Louis XV, is one of the Speed’s most prized pieces for myriad reasons and has even been loaned out to further expand the reach of this stunning work.

“The portrait tells so many incredible stories – and the most relevant point is that it’s an important female patron of the arts, painted by a female artist at a time when women artists faced enormous obstacles in establishing careers,” describes Speed Art Museum Chief Curator Erika Holmquist-Wall. The painting has enjoyed substantial renown before and after it entered the Speed’s collection – so much so that it was recently loaned to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

“The National Gallery curator contacted me back in 2014 about the possibility of borrowing ‘Madame Adélaïde’ for an important, original exhibition concept looking at the families and people who were collecting 18th-century French paintings in America – bringing Old Masters to the New World, so to speak,” Holmquist-Wall recounts. “We recognized the importance of supporting this exhibition, not only for its scholarly importance but also because the painting would have a starring role in the exhibition. Thousands of people would be visiting this exhibition, and it was a wonderful way to have the Speed Art Museum be seen. I liked the idea that museum visitors who were probably very familiar with the collections to be found in the bigger cities like New York, Boston or Philadelphia could be surprised by what an art museum in Louisville, Kentucky had to share.”

The transportation of a painting this size, of course, is easier said than done. “Since the frame is very large and ornate, it generally takes six to eight art handlers to install – a ‘normal’ painting may take two people,” relates Speed Art Museum Head Preparator Ron Davey. “The painting is actually packed in two crates – a large protective outer crate and a lighter constructed inner crate called a travel frame. The outer crate is opened and the travel frame crate is taken out, which has the painting attached inside with clips so it can’t move. The travel frame is moved to the gallery and laid flat, the clips are removed and the painting is removed flat by as many as six art handlers. Once clear of the crate, it is stood up and supported near the wall it will be hung on. Sturdy hardware is attached to the wall and the painting is usually raised with a small lift to get it into position and then attached to the wall. This procedure with all the people and equipment to coordinate can take anywhere from two to four hours.”

The portrait has been returned to the Speed, but due to its resplendent beauty, it’s entirely likely Adélaïde could journey out again, beckoning spectators to observe its grandeur and opulence in person. “‘Madame Adélaïde’ is one of the shining stars of our permanent collection of art,” Holquist-Wall affirms. “Over the decades, she has become one of the museum’s ‘faces’ and will likely always be featured as a must-see when visiting the Speed – unless of course, she’s out on a very special loan assignment!” VT