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From Moulins to the Midwest

A recent commenter asked how the Art Institute became the only North American venue for our current exhibition, Kings, Queens, and Courtiers: Art in Early Renaissance France. So we went straight to the source: Martha Wolff, the Eleanor Wood Prince Curator of European Painting before 1750 here at the museum and the co-curator of the exhibition, explains below the Art Institute’s role in bringing these French treasures to the shores of Lake Michigan.

Like many exhibitions, Kings, Queens, and Courtiers had a long evolution. The idea for the exhibition actually came from the then-director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, Guy Cogeval, and the curator there, Hilliard Goldfarb. They brought it to the organization of French national museums (the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, or RMN) and to the Musée de Cluny, the museum of medieval art in Paris. At this time, they also asked us to be the third venue. Our director, Jim Cuno, was very supportive of the general concept. In discussions with colleagues in Paris, the idea evolved from a general examination of art at the end of the middle ages to a more focused look at the dynamic period around 1500, when the kings of France first became deeply involved in the politics of Italy.

While we were still in the initial planning stage, Montreal dropped out due to their renovation schedule. Recognizing that the show was actually more practical with only two stops, we continued work. This was a rare chance to present extraordinary objects combined in a new and stimulating way. The exhibition would also intersect beautifully with the works the museum acquired—nearly a century ago—from one of our founding Chicago collectors, Martin Ryerson. Thus we had major works to contribute to balance the spectacular loans from France.

I was privileged to be part of the curatorial team that organized the exhibition.  The other organizing curators were Geneviève Bresc-Bautier, the head of the sculpture department at the Louvre; Thierry Crépin-Leblond, director of the Musée national de la Renaissance in Ecouen near Paris; and Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye, director of the Musée national du Moyen Age (the Musée de Cluny) in Paris. A larger advisory committee assured the involvement of specialists in stained glass (Michel Hérold), architecture (Etienne Hamon), illuminated manuscripts (François Avril), and other media. It also included Nicole Reynaud, whose groundbreaking work on French painting of this period was the basis for the reconstruction of many artists’ careers.

Chicago had the benefit of the wonderful loans that this team brought in as well as the freedom to shape the exhibition for an American audience. So in Chicago, we brought in more introductory material and put more emphasis on the use of art to craft an image for the kings. At the same time, the exhibition had to be smaller—we couldn’t bring the tomb of the children of Charles VIII (second image) from Tours to Chicago, for example, or include many large stained glass windows specially removed from churches (though we do have a beautiful one from the cathedral of Moulins; third image). As a curator, I was thrilled that this exhibition allowed me to continue working on the fascinating and still mysterious Jean Hey, whose work I have studied for the catalogue of our collection, and to see the beautiful angel from our Annunciation by Hey displayed all over Paris (first image).

—Martha W., curator of Kings, Queens, and Courtiers: Art in Early Renaissance France and the Eleanor Wood Prince Curator of European Painting before 1750