PARIS.- Marlene and Spencer Hays began buying works of art in the early 1970s. Like many of their fellow Americans, they initially focused on late 19th and early 20th century American painting, carrying off trophies won in the auction houses of New York and London.
Once Impressionist paintings began to command ridiculously high prices, 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, Ranson and Vuillard, and put together an outstanding collection.
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 around 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 wealthy middle classes, girly girls, strollers, shady characters and traditional artisans. In Bonnards painting of 1896, the lamps of Le Jardin de Paris, the legendary café-concert on the Champs-Elysées, cast a subtle light on the crowd looking for a night of entertainment.
A painting by Fernand Pelez, Grimaces et Misère, les saltimbanques [Grimaces and Misery (Acrobats)], an initial version of a monumental painting now in the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, is one of the jewels of the Hays collection. A huge critical success at the 1888 Salon, this melancholy group of itinerant circus performers illustrates the questionable charm of urban poverty that exists behind the bright lights of the show.
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 screen Paravent des nourrices, frise de fiacres [Nannies' Promenade, Frieze of Carriages], one of Bonnards early works, as well as a sketch of the complete screen in a small format.
The Hays like the spontaneity of drawing, its ability to inspire emotion with just a few materials and a fragile support such as paper or card. They prefer unusual works, like Bonnards poster designs and illustrated musical scores in watercolour, and Toulouse-Lautrecs study for the cover of the monthly review LImage.
It was Vuillard, in their 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 set designer at the Theatre de lOEuvre, he produced a number of portraits of actors in character, including the unforgettable Biana Duhamel in the role of Miss Helyett.
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 getting to know Manet. His Tranche de melon [Slice of Melon] on a black background, a portrait of a fruit, interacts harmoniously with the artists self-portrait.
Caillebottes Homard [Lobster], painted in 1883, has pride of place in the dining room of the Hays apartment in New York. Depicted lying directly on a marble tabletop, it 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 Petit déjeuner après le bain [Breakfast after the Bath] greets the visitor in the hallway 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 brilliance of pastel can be found in two other drawings illustrating the artists favourite themes: Danseuse se coiffant [Dancer Arranging her Hair] and Femme sépongeant le dos [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 Manets La Couseuse [The Seamstress] as she leans over her work.
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 bourgeois interior. These are the wealthy aristocrats and middle classes 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 are often portrayed absorbed in their own thoughts.
In the early 1980s, the Hays were attracted to the paintings of Bonnard, Maurice Denis, 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 1880s to champion a Symbolist and decorative art form and reject the mere imitation of reality through established formulae. The Nabis invented a new aesthetic idiom where a visual equivalent for nature, 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 decipher at first glance. This mysterious aspect appealed to the Hays, who bought some remarkable paintings like the seventh panel of Vuillards Jardins publics [Public Gardens] (the Musée dOrsay has five others from this series of nine). Les Fillettes se promenant [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, but was reassembled and bought by the Hays, who also own Le Printemps [Spring] and LAutomne [Autumn], the decorative panels Maurice Denis created for the dining 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, La Fleur rouge [The Red Flower], which once belonged to Maurice Denis, and Vase de fleurs et profil [Vase of Flowers and Profile], complete this Symbolist and Nabi collection that has just been further enriched by two new acquisitions, Maurice Denis Le Goûter au Pouldu [Picnic at Le Pouldu] and Maillols Les Lavandières [Washerwomen].
The Hays were attracted by the intense, life-affirming colours of early 20th century French art. The red of the cape in Derains Harlequin à la guitare [Harlequin with Guitar], the crimson stockings of the model in the yellow Turkish slippers in Marquets painting, and the embroidered flowers in Matisses portrait of a woman, all resonate with a sensuality also found in the full-bodied forms of Maillols painting LEté [Summer], a bronze produced during the artists lifetime in 1911. The triumphant feminity of this allegory is a complete contrast to Rodins Petite Eve designed for La Porte de lEnfer [The Gates of Hell] who shrinks away, her arms wrapped around her body. Dina Vierny who posed for most of Maillols sculptures, was also the model for the series of nudes, rendered in sanguine, 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 de Soutine [Portrait of Soutine] that Modigliani had painted on a door of an apartment belonging to 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. To house these treasures, the Hays built their own hôtel particulier in Nashville, a duplicate of the Hôtel de Noirmoutier in rue Grenelle in Paris, and furnished it with 18th century antiques. The paintings in their New York apartment, decorated by Renzo Mongiardino (1916-1998), are also complemented by exquisite furniture like the set of chairs designed by Paul Follot in the 1920s.
Paintings, sculptures, drawings, and rare books fill every room in these residences. But the Hays have agreed to strip their walls for a few months and return the masterpieces of French art to their country of origin, where visitors to the Musée dOrsay can see them.