It's been happening for several days at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky: People peering in, some with their faces pressed against a window, wanting to see what is happening. Some ask when they will get to come in.
This is not foreign to the museum. It has had its blockbuster exhibits, its big-name artists, in the past.
But rarely are the names so huge: Rembrandt, van Dyck, Rubens, Gainsborough.
"It's that time period — 1600 to 1800 — it's baroque and neo-classical painting. I think for a lot of people, it's the ideal of what painting is," says Janie Welker, museum curator. "It's kind of a celebration of art in this time period."
And it is the result of an extremely rare opportunity.
The pieces usually are housed and displayed at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. But the museum is closed for a $60 million renovation and expansion. It is expected to reopen by 2016.
Meanwhile, portions of its collection are moving around the country, including the show coming to the UK museum, Rembrandt, Rubens, Gainsborough and the Golden Age of Painting.
Bringing the exhibit to Lexington was the result of a deal between two outgoing directors: UK's Kathy Walsh-Piper, who announced her retirement in March, and the Speed's Charles Venable, whose successor, Ghislain d'Humières, was announced this week.
Welker says the Speed cut its neighboring museum a good deal, charging UK only for shipping. But looking at the massive crates crowded into the back rooms of the museum adds new dimensions to the word only.
"Some of those crates are the biggest crates I've ever seen," Welker says, noting the centerpiece of the exhibit, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard's Portrait of Madame Adélaïde, is 111/2 feet by 7 feet.
Welker says the piece's size dictated its place in the gallery, but the real Herculean effort went into wrestling Anthony van Dyck's Saint Sebastian Bound for Martyrdom, 71/2 feet by 61/4 feet, to the museum's second level. It now hangs right at the top of the stairs, enticing viewers to ascend and take a look at the second level.
The exhibit is divided into several sections, including portraits of arts patrons, religious imagery, historic scenes and depictions of interiors and exteriors.
Many of the works reflect the specific wishes of the people who commissioned them, but Welker points out the artists also worked to make sure their tastes and talents came through.
"For the artists, it's a way to show their skill through these beautiful silks and velvets, and that was really highly valued," Welker says. "In the 17th century, this really wealthy merchant class arose that could afford to have these beautiful paintings made for their homes, and a lot of it was really centered on the home."
Welker leads the way to the Rembrandt, Portrait of a Forty-Year-Old Woman, possibly Marretje Cornelisdr. van Grotewal, which isn't terribly dazzling at first glance. But Welker points out the "extraordinary detail" in the intricately pleated Elizabethan collar the woman is wearing.
In a time before photography, the paintings show a devotion to realistic portrayal of life, from the details of a hand to the subtleties of light. A distinct feature of the "Indoor Outdoor" segment of the exhibit is that most of the interiors are very dark. For instance, in Nicolas Tournier's Dice Players, most of the faces fall into harsh shadows — there were no electric lights to brighten the rooms.
Welker notes that in Carl Borromäus Andreas Ruthart's Adam Naming the Animals, there is sharp detail on many of the animals, but some that probably were not as familiar to the German artist are relegated to the shadows.
"The detail is just fabulous and fascinating," she says.
Not that the painters were too wedded to realism. Jacob van Walscapelle's Floral Still Life, for instance, features a number of flowers that would not have been alive at the same time. Then there is Giovanni Paolo Panini's The Sermon of an Apostle that frames the title event with several Roman landmarks brought together, "like a postcard," Welker says.
The opportunity to walk through the UK gallery and study the masterworks in detail is a rare treat, one the public may enjoy starting Saturday.
"All of them are so detailed, you could spend hours looking at these pieces," Welker says of the paintings. "I think everybody is going to love this show — these are world-class paintings, and you don't get to see them that frequently."
IF YOU GO
'Rembrandt, Rubens, Gainsborough and the Golden Age of Painting in Europe'
What: Exhibition of 72 Old Masters paintings from the Speed Art Museum in Louisville.
When: June 29-Sept. 22. Gallery hours: Noon-5 p.m. Tue.-Thu., Sat., Sun.; noon-8 p.m. Fri.
Where: The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, inside the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.
Tickets: $8 adults; $5 senior adults; free for all students, UK staff, faculty and alumni. Free admission for all 5-8 p.m. Fri.
Learn more: (859) 257-5716, Uky.edu/ArtMuseum
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: Copiousnotes.bloginky.com.