An American couple’s ongoing love affair with Paris has resulted in the largest gift to a French museum by a foreign donor in over 70 years.
Three hundred and fifty million euro: That is how much the City of Light is worth to Marlene and Spencer Hays. The American couple recently bequeathed 600 works of their collection of French impressionist and post-impressionist artists to the venerable Parisian Musée d’Orsay, among them original œuvres by such famed artists as Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Amedeo Modigliani, and Edgar Degas.
The Hays’ passionate love story with France dates back 45 years. Spencer Hays, who like his wife Marlene comes from humble roots, had worked his way up from door-to-door salesman to multimillionaire. “When Marlene and I grew up in a little old town in Texas, even visiting France was far beyond our expectations,” Hays told America’s National Public Radio (NPR). “But in 1971, we made our first trip to Paris, and our love affair with this wonderful country began. We’ve returned every year and our passion has grown.”
In fact, the couple’s love of all things French grew so deep that they built a replica of the Hôtel de Noirmoutier – an 18th century mansion located on rue de Grenelle in the elegant 7th arrondissement of Paris (pictured above) – in Nashville, Tennessee. To furnish it, they bought their first original piece of art shortly after their first Paris trip in the early Seventies. That one was soon joined by another, and another, and another … and gradually the Hayses built a notable collection of Nabis (post-impressionist avant-garde artists) complemented by French impressionists.
The couple, both 80 years old and married for 60 of them, has developed a close relationship with the Musée d’Orsay over the years. In 2013, they loaned the museum a selection of their collection, exhibited under the title of “French Passion”. Their decision to repatriate the French œuvres, estimated to be worth $372 million, fills them with joy. “Even in our wildest dreams, we never thought that we’d come here to donate a collection of art work to the French, to the Musée d’Orsay!” so Spencer Hays. “The collection will be here after our death, and we are very happy about it.”
During a recent official ceremony at the Elysées palace in the presence of French President François Hollande, the Hayses gifted an initial 187 pieces. “Art belongs to no one, we are only its custodians, and we’re happy to be so. We want everyone to benefit from it. That’s why we have made the decision to donate our collection to the Musée d’Orsay”, Spencer Hays said in his speech. For its gift, the couple was honoured with a Legion d’Honneur award, reserved for outstanding contributions to French art and culture.
Exceptional for its size and coherence, this collection is the largest a French museum has received from a foreign donor since 1945, according to French Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay. And Isabelle Cahn, head curator at the Musée d’Orsay, adds, “They are collectors who are interested in French art from the second half of the 19th century, with paintings that are very realistic and serene, which depict Parisian life, because their great love is France – it’s Paris. They wanted to surround themselves with this vision of the 19th century”.
To accommodate the Hayses’ wish for the collection to be exhibited in a single space of 900 m2 (9,700 sq.ft.), the Musée d’Orsay will redesign parts of its floor plan. A French law prohibiting museums from selling off pieces of pledged collections might play a role in the couple’s decision to donate to a museum in France instead of one closer to home. Unlike American museums which can relinquish works and sell them, French museums are not allowed to break up a collection. They also realized that more Americans would visit these priceless works at a world class Parisian museum than at any museum back home.
Located on the left bank of the Seine, the Musée d’Orsay is housed in the former Gare d’Orsay, a Beaux-Arts railway station built between 1898 and 1900. One of the largest arts museums in Europe, it holds mainly French art dating from 1848 to 1914, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, and photography. It features the largest collection of impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world, by artists including Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Sisley, Gauguin, and Van Gogh.
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