A French Passion: The Marlene and Spencer Hays Collection is now on view at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

PARIS - April in Paris. Under sunny skies with spring flowers blooming in the Tuileries, I had the great pleasure of attending the opening of Une Passion Française (A French Passion): The Marlene and Spencer Hays Collection at the Musée d’Orsay on the evening of April 15th.  The event was also marked by Mr. Hays receiving the distinctive Officier de l’Ordre de la Legion d’Honneur.  And I, in turn, am honored to say that I have known Spencer and Marlene Hays since the early 1990s. I am also proud to point out that several of the works in their collection, and now on view at the Orsay, were acquired in auctions that I have organized. While the collection includes first-rate examples of French Impressionist and Nabis paintings, I would especially like to draw attention to two works that serve as highlights of the “other” 19th century. By this I mean works by 19th century French painters who are not traditionally regarded as members of an avant-garde movement, but which are anything but traditional, and work perfectly with the later, more modern stars of the Hays collection.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s The Artist’s Studio.

Corot’s The Artist’s Studio, painted in the early 1870’s, underscores why Degas, Cézanne and Picasso so admired Corot’s figure pictures. Like these later artists, we view Corot’s women with modern eyes, and today recognize their importance in the evolution of abstraction in the depiction of the human form. In particular we notice the woman’s slender, but decidedly elongated arm, and her pink dress painted with individual blocks of paint that create an impression of fabric. Corot was probably unaware that this figure, with her far from perfect anatomy, accidentally anti-Academic, would be a precursor to future representations of the human form in art.  

Fernand Pelez’s Grimaces et Misère, les saltimbanques.

Fernand Pelez’s Grimaces et Misère, les saltimbanques is a painting that ranks among my top ten favorites out of the thousands of works that have filled my auctions over the years, and I was delighted to see that it is the first painting you view when you enter the exhibition at the Orsay. This was a painting that Spencer and Marlene purchased at Sotheby’s in May 2010, and which was featured as the catalogue cover. To be honest, this was my first real exposure to this fascinating French Naturalist painter, even though Pelez had been the subject of an important retrospective at the Petit Palais in 2009 and a monographic essay by the late, brilliant Robert Rosenblum in 1981. It is a smaller (45 x 115 inches!) version of the monumental work of the same subject in the collection of the Petit Palais. I can still remember when Mr. and Mrs. Hays visited the exhibition for our May 2010 auction and first saw the Pelez; Spencer’s eyes lit up in recognition, explaining that every time that he and Marlene would visit Paris they would go to the Petit Palais to view the large version of this painting. Like so many of the acquisitions the Hays have made over the years, the Pelez carries with it personal associations of times in their beloved Paris. When they purchased the Pelez in our auction, I knew that my family of circus performers had found a good home. And like the Corot, the Pelez has a modern edge. When Pelez exhibited his large-scale version of the painting at the Salon of 1888, Georges Seurat entered a work on a similar theme, Circus Sideshow, simultaneously at the Salon des Indépendants of the same year.

Anyone lucky enough to be in Paris this summer, should make a point to visit the Musée d’Orsay to see Une Passion Française (A French Passion): The Marlene and Spencer Hays Collection before it closes on August 18th. This is a rare opportunity to see a great private collection and also to get a sense of the passion that went into putting it together.