In 2016, Marlene and Spencer Hays, a collecting couple who had amassed an extensive trove of about 600 artworks, announced that after their passing, the entirety of their collection would be donated to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. In 2017, Spencer Hays passed away and recently, Marlene, now 82, announced that she has decided to expedite the process by sending 106 works from their collection ahead to the French institution.
The Hays began collecting art in 1970s before first visiting Paris in 1971 and fell in love. Each year since, they travelled to the City of Lights. In a 2016 interview, Spencer joked: ‘We both grew up in a small town. We didn’t have any money. Back then, the only thing I knew about Paris and France was the city called Paris, in Texas, 70 kilometers from where I lived’
In 2013, 187 works from their collection, valued at €173 million ($188 million), were exhibited at the Musée d’Orsay in an exhibition titled ‘A Passion for France: The Marlene and Spencer Hays Collection.’ ‘Passion for France’ was exactly the right expression, too. The couple’s collection contains mostly late 19th and early 20th century works by artists like Edouard Vuillard, Amedeo Modigliani, and Henri Matisse. Their collection is particularly strong in post-Impressionists works by Les Nabis including the likes of Pierre Bonnard, Vuillard, Maurice Denis, Odilon redon, Aristide Maillol, and André Derain. In 2001, they bought a 1917 portrait by Modigliani of artist Chaim Soutine that happened to be painted on the back of a door. ‘We love the Modigliani a lot,’ Marlene once said. ‘It was painted on a door. I think they were dead drunk and didn’t have any canvas’ she added of the 1917 artwork. Following the pledge of their collection to the Musée d’Orsay, the couple were made commanders of the Legion of Honor by then French president François Hollande.
Today, their collection is mostly housed in their New York apartment and their Nashville, Tennessee home, which was modeled after the Hôtel de Noirmoutier, the one-time home to the prefect of the Île-de-France region. Of the 106 artworks headed to the Paris museum now, 40 are paintings, 47 are works on paper, and 19 are sculptures including some works by Bonnard, Camille Claudel, Matisse, and Modigliani.
‘I love his way of painting, his colors, the flatness of some of his compositions,’ said Spencer of Modigliani in the 2013 conversation. ‘I love that he always painted his friends.’ Now, and even sooner than the couple thought, many more people will have the opportunity to experience the paintings so loved by the couple for years to come in a city they fell in love with years ago.