A Paris Vacation For Nashville Millionaires' French Art

NPR | June 27, 2013 9:05 a.m.

Contributed By:

Susan Stamberg

To say that Nashvillean Spencer Hays is crazy for French art is an understatement. “French art just quickens our step, fires our spirit and touches our heart,” he says.

Hays’ passion began when he was in his 30s. By then he was already a millionaire; Forbes estimated his worth at $400 million in 1997, money earned from book-selling and clothing businesses. Hays had humble beginnings.

“When Marlene and I grew up in a little old town in Texas, even visiting France was far beyond our expectations,” Hays says. “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.”

As the Hayses’ love of France grew, so did their collection of French art. Some of their pieces have now made it back to their country of origin: created in France and brought to Tennessee, the Hays Collection is currently on display in Paris at the Musee d’Orsay. Guy Cogeval, the head of the museum, says he’s impressed by Hays’ passion. “Very, very rarely in my life,” he says, “did I see a person so much in love with French art.”

Cogeval says the Hayses’ Francophilia shows in the home that they built in Nashville, Tennessee — “a real palace,” Cogeval says. That’s no exaggeration: Spencer Hays’ house is an exact replica of a palace built in France in 1724.

“He wanted to use the limestone from Paris and he wanted every button, every opening, every faucet exactly to be French,” Cogeval says. The Hayses raided French antique shops for the furniture and silverware to fill the house, and inside that Nashville palace they installed all the French art they’d been collecting.

Friends And ‘Prophets’

Many of the works in their collection were made in the 1890s by artists called the Nabis — French for “prophets.” These painters moved beyond impressionism, using flat colors and Japanese-inspired composition. Two of the Nabis — Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard — were lifelong friends.

“We have a wonderful painting by Bonnard of Vuillard and then Vuillard of Bonnard,” Hays says. “And they were in their 20s when they each did that of the other.”

Bonnard’s 1891 painting of Vuillard shows his friend in profile. “His beard is so red you can’t believe it,” Hays says. “The colors are so strong, and you can see the curls in his beard. And you can just tell the passion they had for each other and the movement.”

Red-headed Vuillard, in the same year, paints Bonnard making art. Isabelle Cahn, curator of the Musee d’Orsay show, says Bonnard seems intent on the brush he’s holding. “He doesn’t look at us. He look[s] very carefully to his drawing or his painting,” she says. “It is a very intimate portrait.”

A Bright Portrait Of Infidelity

These are early works, not great ones. But Guy Cogeval says that a decade later Edouard Vuillard had developed a rather healthy ego. “In the year 1900 he’s 32 years old, and he considers himself one of the greatest living artists and the savior of art,” Cogeval says.

Fans of Vuillard, like the Hayses, would agree. And in this Musee d’Orsay show, you can see the eye of the artist, and his collectors, develop as the years go by. In 1895, Vuillard made a terrific painting, A table (Le Dejeuner), which curator Isabelle Cahn says depicts a scandal.

“This scene is about infidelity,” she says. At first glance, the painting seems to be depicting a nice family meal: An old lady, a bearded man and a young woman in a red, lace-trimmed blouse sit around a dining table. It seems benign enough. But the bearded fellow is in motion. “A lot of men I know, when they get angry at the table, they push back,” Hays observes. “And that’s what he’s doing.”

The woman in the red and lace blouse is Vuillard’s sister Marie; she’s married to the bearded table-pusher, Ker-Xavier Roussel, another Nabi, who’s Vuillard’s closest friend. Roussel is consistently unfaithful — he’s cheating on his best friend’s sister.

Cogeval says that the brothers-in-law remained best friends, even as Roussel kept up his scandalous behavior. “He did that for a very long time,” Cogeval says. “During the ‘30s he was still bringing models, women models, into his atelier, and wished the family to go upstairs and leave him alone inside the atelier.” Cogeval found the evidence of this family drama in letters and diaries — see how much fun art experts can have?

Financial Donations, Artistic Value

The owners of that Vuillard with the racy backstory, Marlene and Spencer Hays of Nashville, Tenn., have helped to launch the American Friends Musee d’Orsay. The group will attempt to bring American money to the great French museum at a time when national budgets are tight. Certainly a help to the Musee. Did it also help get the Hays Collection onto the walls of the Orsay?

“This is an amazing collection,” curator Isabelle Cahn says. “When Spencer came before the opening of the exhibition, he told me that he was afraid that his collection was not at the same level as the paintings and the sculpture in the Musee d’Orsay. But now we know that it is the same level. It is why it is so beautiful, and we are so happy to have it.”

Not all visitors may agree. But in Spencer Hays’ view, the pictures he’s collected over the years, especially the works of the Nabis, are indeed marvelous.

“Every night before I go to bed,” he says. “I spend at least 45 minutes to an hour plus walking around looking at every painting. Because that’s what’s so wonderful about the Nabis — you can always discover something else.”

More than 100 works of art from the Marlene and Spencer Hays Collection are on view at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris until mid-August. So for at least a little while, Spencer Hays might find his nighttime prowls a bit curtailed.

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