Une passion française — La collection Marlene et Spencer Hays


Drawing, painting, sculpture

Une passion française
La collection Marlene et Spencer Hays

Past: April 16 → August 18, 2013

Marlene and Spencer Hays began buying works of art in the early 1970s. Like many other American collectors of the time, they initially focused on late 19th and early 20th century American painting, winning their trophies by outbidding at the international auction houses of New York and London. Then, they looked further afield, and in the early 1980s discovered the Nabis. They immediately fell under the spell of the mysterious paintings of Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Maillol, Ranson and Vuillard, and started an outstanding collection.

Living in Paris

The collection includes a considerable number of paintings and drawings depicting Paris in the 19th century and the Belle Epoque. Looking at these works on their walls reminds the Hays of the times they too, strolled along the streets of Paris or in the Tuileries Gardens. Fin de siècle Paris with its lively street life, cafés and theatres — so accurately described by Anquetin, Forain, Béraud, Goeneutte and Steinlen also — appeals to them.

These paintings contain all the typical characters found on the Parisian boulevards: the “bourgeois”, the “midinettes”, the “flâneurs”, shady characters and crafts of long ago. In Bonnard’s painting of 1896, the lamps of Paris gardens, the legendary café-concert on the Champs-Elysées, subtly cast light on the crowd looking for a night of entertainment. A painting by Fernand Pelez, Grimaces and Misery Circus performers, an initial version of a monumental painting now in the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris Collection, is one of the jewels of the Hays collection. A huge critical success at the 1888 Salon, this melancholic circus parade illustrates the ambiguous charm of urban poverty that exists behind the bright lights of the show.

Graphic Arts: Pont-Aven and the Nabis

Spencer Hays, who is passionate about drawings, has collected several hundred over a period of thirty years, including rare works by the artists of the Pont-Aven School and the Nabis. Among these is a life-size preparatory study for a panel of The governesses walk, frieze of hackney cabs, one of Bonnard’s early works, as well as a sketch of the complete screen in a small format.

Spencer Hays likes the spontaneity of drawing, its ability to inspire emotion with little means and a fragile support such as paper or cardboard. He prefers unusual works, like Bonnard’s poster designs and illustrated musical scores in watercolour, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s study for the cover of the monthly review L’Image. It was Vuillard, in his opinion, who recreated an intimist atmosphere most successfully, drawing the viewer into the domestic life of his characters, just as an actor draws his audience into the drama on stage. While still a stage manager at the Theatre de l’OEuvre, he produced a number of portraits of actors in character, including the unforgettable Biana Duhamel in the role of Miss Helyett.


The collection has a large number of still lifes and portraits; portraits of famous figures, forgotten figures, painters and sculptors. In the 1990s, the Hays started to take an interest in Fantin-Latour, captivated by his sensuous brushwork and the realistic textures of his still lifes. Heir to the classic tradition and often compared with Chardin, Fantin-Latour turned towards modernity after having been in contact with Manet. His Slice of Melon on a dark background, a portrait of a fruit, interacts harmoniously with the artist’s selfportrait.

Caillebotte’s Lobster, painted in 1883, has a place of honor in the dining room of the Hays apartment in New York. The painting depicts a lobster lying directly on a marble tabletop, which symbolises the sense of taste; it is an ode to the simple, yet refined love of this crustacean enjoyed by French and Americans alike.


The stunning beauty of Degas’ Breakfast after the Bath greets the visitor in the entrance hall of the Hays’ New York apartment. Degas produced several versions of this intimate early morning scene of the mistress taking a bath attended by her maid. This complicity with his model transformed by the radiance of pastel can be found in two other drawings illustrating the artist’s favourite themes: Dancer combing her Hair and Woman Sponging her Back.

This intimacy is also found in the graphic works of Georges Lemmen (1865-1916), a Belgian Impressionist painter influenced by Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, who moved towards Symbolism while adopting a pointillist technique. His portraits of women in a domestic setting express a melancholy that is also apparent in Manet’s The Seamstress as she leans over her sewing.


Several of the paintings and pastels in the Hays collection feature groups of men and women or portraits of single figures in a garden or cozy interiors. These are the wealthy aristocrats and bourgeois of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Particular attention is given to their elegant clothing, the dignified pose and the beautiful settings that combine to capture the very essence of this social elite, who often seem to be absorbed in their own thoughts.

Paul Helleu, a fashionable portrait artist, adopted a refined style that earned him many commissions. His Portrait presumably of the Princesse de Ligne, anticipating the heroines of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, is a symphony in white major, a triumph of restraint and sophistication. A pastel portrait by Jacques-Émile Blanche, a friend of Helleu, is probably of the painter Charles Laval, a close friend of Gauguin who died at the age of 33.

Symbolist and Nabi Masterpieces

In the early 1980s, the Hays were attracted to the paintings of Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Maillol, Ranson and Vuillard whose works expressed the mysterious intricacies of the mind, the resonance of feelings and the complexity of human relationships. The Nabis group was formed in the early 1890s to defend a Symbolist and decorative art form and reject the mere imitation of reality through established formulae. The Nabis invented a new aesthetic language where a visual equivalent of reality, evoking spiritual truths, poetry and dreams could be achieved through sinuous lines, flat areas of colour, strong contrasts of light and shadow and a two-dimensional quality in their images. Their paintings are sometimes difficult to decode at first glance.

This mysterious aspect appealed to the Hays, who bought some remarkable paintings like the seventh panel of Vuillard’s Public Gardens (the Musée d’Orsay has five others from this series of nine). Little Girls Walking, depicts two of the apprentices Vuillard’s mother employed in her dressmaking studio, as they stroll in the Tuileries gardens. It came into the Hays collection in 2008 and is currently one of their favourite paintings.

A Japanese screen, an important early work by Bonnard, had been dismantled before being reunited and bought by the Hays, who also own Spring and Autumn, the decorative panels Maurice Denis created for a double door of the living room of Arthur Huc. He was the editor of the newspaper La Dépêche de Toulouse, and had been a friend and supporter of the Nabis from the very beginning.

Two masterly works by Redon, The Red Flower, which once belonged to Maurice Denis, and Vase of Flowers and Profile, complete this Symbolist and Nabi collection that has just been further enriched by two new acquisitions, Maurice Denis’ Children tea at Le Pouldu and Maillol’s Washerwomen.

The Fauve Period

The Hays were attracted by the intense, full of life colours of early 20th century French art. The red of the cape in Derain’s Harlequin with Guitar, the carmine stockings of the model in the yellow Turkish slippers in Marquet’s painting, and the embroidered flowers in Matisse’s portrait of a woman, all resonate with a sensuality also found in the full-bodied forms of Maillol’s Summer, a bronze produced during the artist’s lifetime in 1911.

The triumphant feminity of this allegory is a complete contrast to Rodin’s Petite Eve designed for The Gates of Hell who curled up, her arms wrapped around her body. Dina Vierny who posed for most of Maillol’s sculptures, was also the model for the series of nudes, rendered in red chalk, few of them displayed in the last room of the exhibition. Refusing to restrict themselves to a linear history of art, the Hays encourage comparative and complementary perspectives and dialogue between artists. In 2001, they bought the Portrait of Soutine that Modigliani had painted on a door of the apartment of the art dealer Léopold Sborowski (1889-1932). This portrait, completed in one sitting, is a moving testimony to a fragile and destitute artist in the bohemian heyday of Montparnasse.

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1, rue de la Légion d’Honneur

75007 Paris

T. 01 40 49 48 14

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Opening hours

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Late night on Thursday until 9:30 PM

Admission fee

Full rate €11.00 — Concessions €8,50

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