Marlene and Spencer Hays

A passion, a collection, an exceptional donation
© Musée d'Orsay / Sophie Crépy

For more than forty years, Marlene and Spencer Hays have assembled an exceptional art collection comprising some 600 works from the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. It was put together  by this collector couple from Texas, and now by Marlene Hays. They decided to donate it to the Musée d'Orsay.

Marlène and Spencer Hays

Marlene and Spencer Hays both grew up in modest families, far from the museums in Gainesville, Texas. The couple married on June 2, 1956. Spencer Hays (July 14, 1936 - March 1, 2017), who was born in Ardmore, Oklahoma received his business degree from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, was the founder of Tom James, a custom apparel manufacturer, and ran the Southwestern Company, an educational materials sales company, and Athlon Sports Communications, a sports magazine publisher. Marlene Hays also studied in Gainesville. She met Spencer in high school. The couple married on June 2, 1956.

It was in the 1970s that Marlene and Spencer Hays developed a passion for art. They were first interested in American painting of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Paris fascinated them and the painting of Parisian life at the end of the 19th century by artists such as Bérard, Anquetin and Steinlen became one of the focal points of the collection. In the 1980s, they discovered the Pont-Aven School and the Nabis, these prophets of modern art. Collectors and certain museums began to give an essential place back to these works by Bonnard, Vuillard, Sérusier and Ranson, painted in the late 1880s and early 1890s. The Nabis seduced the Hays couple with the "mystery of their painting," which Marlene Hays sums up in these terms: “You don’t immediately understand the meaning, you really have to make an effort. Looking at them isn’t enough, you have to study them. And there’s the color...” The Hays then acquired major pieces by Vuillard, Bonnard, as well as by Denis, Maillol, or Ranson, creating an outstanding collection. For his part, Spencer Hays confessed a predilection for Vuillard, who "always painted portraits of his friends.”

Edouard Vuillard
Fillettes se promenant, vers 1891
Collection Marlene et Spencer Hays
© Photographie John Schweikert / John Schweikert
Pierre Bonnard
Le corsage à carreaux (détail), en 1892
Musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
See the notice of the artwork
“"We love people. I've always loved people. That's what the Nabis are interested in - friends, family, daily exchanges [...]. ””
Personne citée
Spencer Hays

After the purchase of a Pissarro, the collection included Impressionist works (Morisot, Caillebotte, Degas, Renoir), but also artists such as Gauguin, Maillol, as well as Boldini, Tissot, Pelez, going all the way to the beginning of the 20th century with Derain, Matisse, and Modigliani, whose Portrait by Soutine was painted on a door in the apartment of the art dealer Léopold Zborowski. Marlene and Spencer Hays' criteria for choosing works of art is to buy only works that they both love and wish to keep forever, which means that they have only very rarely resold works from their collection. They love paintings, but also sculptures and drawings that guide us to the artists' intimacy. What matters to them, and the collection offers the illustration of this with the predominance of portraits and compositions of figures, is the human dimension. The works and the artists are, in their eyes, friends who, inviting contemplation and conversation, connect us to life.

Fernand Pelez
Grimaces et Misère : les saltimbanques, 1887-1888
© Droits réservés / DR

Paris- Nashville – New York

© Patrice Schmidt

To house these treasures, the Hays built their own private mansion in Nashville, on a model of the Hôtel de Noirmoutier in rue de Grenelle in Paris, and furnished it with 18th-century antiques. The artwork in their New York apartment, decorated by Renzo Mongiardino (1916-1998), fit well with the exquisite furniture like the set of settees chairs designed by Paul Follot in the 1920s.
Paintings, sculptures, drawings, and rare books fill every room of their residences. 


© Patrice Schmidt

The first donation

It was in 2001 that Guy Cogeval, a Vuillard specialist, met Marlene and Spencer Hays. This deep friendship first led the couple to lend 187 works to the Musée d'Orsay for the exhibition A Passion for France from April 16 to August 18, 2013. 
This same group of works was finally the subject of a first donation, subject to usufruct, to the Musée d'Orsay in October 2016 when Guy Cogeval became its president. This first group comprised 182 works, including 69 Nabi works: 23 Vuillard, 12 Bonnard, 4 Maurice Denis, as well as paintings and sculptures by Odilon Redon, Degas, Caillebotte, Corot, Maillol, Modigliani, Albert Marquet
The donation signing ceremony took place on October 22, 2016 at the Élysée Palace in the presence of the President of France, François Hollande, who presented them with badges of Commanders of the Legion of Honor.


Edgar Degas
Femme s'épongeant le dos, vers 1895
© Droits réservés / DR
Amadeo Modigliani
Portrait de Chaïm Soutine, 1917
© Droits réservés / DR

The second donation

After the exceptional donation made to France in October 2016, Marlene Hays made a second donation to the Musée d'Orsay to complement the first, thus perpetuating the wishes of her husband Spencer, who died in March 2017 - and in the same spirit. This donation represented a new historical enrichment of the national public collections.

James Tissot
Les rivaux, 1878-1879
Donation Marlene Hays, 2019
© Musée d'Orsay / Patrice Schmidt

On July 10, 2019, 106 new works (40 paintings, 47 works on paper and 19 sculptures) joined the first group , bringing the total of the donation to 288 pieces, making it one of the largest donations in the history of the Musée d'Orsay. Concerning the Nabis, it includes 10 paintings by Bonnard, including Goûter au jardin [Tea in the Garden] (circa 1891) and Jeune fille au chien [Young Girl with Dog](1894), 9 by Vuillard, including À la divette, Cabourg [At La Divette, Cabourg] (1911-1913), three by Maurice Denis, including Noli me Tangere (circa 1891) and two by Vallotton, including La cuisinière [The Cook] (1892), as well as a sculpture by Georges Lacombe, Le Lavoir des malheureux [The Wash House of the Poor] (1894). The donation is enriched by works by Émile Bernard,Odilon Redon and Camille Claudel, as well as early 20th century paintings by Robert Delaunay with La femme au pain [Woman with Bread] (1905), and Matisse with Portrait aux cheveux bouclés, Pull marin [Portrait with Curly Hair, Sailor’s Sweater] (1907) and La femme en jaune [Woman in Yellow](1923) and Modigliani with Young Woman with a Rose – Margherita [Jeune femme à la rose - Margherita] (1916), which affirm the opening towards the 20th century and will strengthen the link between the collections of the Musée d'Orsay and those of the Musée de l'Orangerie. 

Pierre Bonnard
Goûter au jardin, vers 1891
Donation Marlene Hays, 2019
© Musée d'Orsay / Patrice Schmidt
Amedeo Modigliani
Jeune femme à la rose (Margherita), 1916
Donation Marlene Hays, 2019
© Musée d'Orsay / Patrice Schmidt

Finally, the 47 drawings present in this second part of the donation introduce us to the artists' laboratory. They further strengthen the intimate dimension of the collection. Certain sheets, such as Manet's exceptional preparatory study for Le Balcon [The Balcony], or Bonnard's sketches, establish a direct link with paintings already in the Musée d'Orsay.

Like the first part of the donation, these 106 works complete a sensitive and personal panorama, oriented towards the representation of the human figure. They will be exhibited in rooms dedicated to this collection, reflecting a passion for French art of the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century, and an exceptional generosity.

Félix Vallotton
Au marché, vers 1895
Donation Marlene Hays, 2019
© Musée d'Orsay / Patrice Schmidt