The Art Of Collecting Well: Two Americans Make A Major Gift To France

​The Art Press has been aflutter the last few days following the announcement that Americans Spencer and Marlene Hays have donated their entire collection of French art to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. At present, 187 works have been sent to the museum, and the remaining works will be sent after they couple have passed on. Currently, the Hays own over 600 works, which decorate their homes in New York and Nashville, but as they are apparently still collecting, I suppose the final total could well be even more. It is the largest single gift by any foreign donor to a French museum since World War II.

The Hays, I was touched to read, have been married for 60 years, and came from humble beginnings in Gainesville, Texas. Mr. Hays began building his business empire as a student in the 1950’s, by selling educational books such as college preparatory exam guides, door to door. He gradually rose to own the company, along with developing business interests in sports, communications, and clothing retail.

The couple made their first trip to Paris in 1971, and immediately fell in love with French art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They began collecting French art, and have slowly and carefully built an impressive collection. The cache includes a dozen works by Bonnard and nearly two dozen by Vuillard, as well as pieces by Caillebotte, Degas, Derain, Fantin-Latour, Maillol, Matisse, Modigliani, Redon, Rodin, and many others. One of the most evocative works in their collection is the lovely “Girl In White (La Princesse de Ligne)” by Paul César Helleu, pictured below.

Interesting as this collection is, there is a bigger takeaway from this story than simply a news item about these works of art going into a public collection.

Regular readers know, since I tell you often enough, that the best way to get to know about art is to plunge, in feet-first, and learn all you can about the art that you feel drawn to. As the Hays themselves have pointed out, they were amateurs when they started out. They were not people who studied art history at university, or grew up in luxurious homes filled with art. In fact, they did not grow up with any money at all, let alone near any great art museums.

Rather, they both became interested in art, and began teaching themselves all they could about it. Once their circumstances had improved to the point that they were able to purchase the kind of works that they liked, they did so carefully and quietly, rather than making splashy purchases for show. They liked what they liked because THEY liked it, whether or not anyone else did. Theirs is a collection built out of love, not out of a desire to impress the Joneses.

As a final note, what a great example the Hays have given to others, particularly in our extremely greedy and selfish age, that since you can’t take it with you, the best way to share your love for beautiful art with others is to give it away.

Dangerous Design: Sonia Rykiel, Victorians, and Burkinis

​As the design world today mourns the loss of iconic French designer Sonia Rykiel, two recent controversies involving what one should be allowed to wear in public make me wonder what she might have made of these stories.

Ms. Rykiel catapulted to fame back in 1963, when Audrey Hepburn sought out her boutique in Paris after seeing one of the designer’s “poor boy” sweaters on the cover of Elle, and bought 5 of them on the spot. She employed a mostly dark palette punctuated by electric colors and designs from the Pop Art movement. She was particularly praised for her knitwear and for the use of unusual textures in her work; I am fortunate enough to have several somber but pleasing ties designed by her house. When it comes to style, you could not get much further away from Ms. Rykiel’s aesthetic than the prim and prudish Victorian era, even though she herself was famous for her almost Pre-Raphaelite auburn hair.

Today however, it is Victorian prudishness which is considered shocking. As this article from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation describes, Washington State couple Gabriel and Sarah Chrisman recently took a trip to Canada to celebrate their 14th wedding anniversary. Mr. and Mrs. Chrisman take the idea of period living far beyond simply putting on old clothes at the weekend for something like a Civil War reenactment, and actually try to live as much a Victorian lifestyle as possible – albeit with a very 21st century divergence, in that they blog about their experiences. Thus, when the couple visited Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia during their vacation, they were unpleasantly surprised to be asked to change clothes or leave, since the park maintains a “no costumes” policy.

Then yesterday, news stories and photographs surfaced from France, in which police officers were shown asking Muslim women who had covered themselves up on the Riviera to remove their Victorian – or perhaps better put, Medieval Revival – coverings or leave the beach. The commentariat went ballistic, as summarized in this opinion piece in the New York Times. There were photographic posts of men in wet suits or nuns in their habits at the seaside, asking what was the difference between the French allowing such garb to be worn at the beach, but not allowing Muslim women in France to cover themselves up in the so-called “burkini” or similar garments.

Being French and a member of the Legion of Honor, I would imagine that Ms. Rykiel would mock the Canadians but side with her own countrymen. The French have a habit of chastising everyone else while making exceptions for themselves. Given how many times their country has been subjected to Islamic terrorism in recent years, there is a tendency even among the left-leaning French to categorize Fundamentalist Islamic forms of dress as an actual public danger, rather than as an expression of modesty.
That being said, a ban on the wearing of costumes in a park seems to me just as untenable as insisting that women remove their clothing at the beach. Do we draw the line of acceptability of either practice at whether the space is publicly or privately owned? Who gets to decide what is a “costume”, or what makes an article of clothing dangerous? I would be curious to read some debate in the comments section.

Sonia Rykiel (1930-2016)

The Courtier On The Fifth Estate; Art Finds From Museum Storage

My sincere thanks to Jay Caruso and Neal Dewing of The Fifth Estate for inviting me onto their show last evening. We had a wide-ranging, amusing, cantankerously satisfying discussion about art, which you can stream or download later today. Be sure to check out their episodes with past guests, including Mike Rowe, Dana Perino and Ed Morrissey – wait, how did I merit getting on this show? – and take the time to leave them a review on iTunes, if you like what you hear. Podcasters really do benefit from your iTunes feedback, and it only takes you a few seconds.

One of the topics I touched on in passing during the show was the rediscovery of a lost painting of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane by Charles LeBrun (1619-1690), which had been sitting in storage at the Louvre since 2008. LeBrun was the favorite painter of France’s “Sun King”, Louis XIV, and one of the most important artists in French history. This particular work was so popular at the time it was painted, that contemporary copies of it were commissioned by several prominent European collectors. The original was stolen after the French Revolution, and ended up in a Trappist monastery for two centuries. It is currently being restored, and will go on display to the public later this year.

Regular readers may recall that another painting by LeBrun, “The Sacrifice of Polyxena”, was discovered in the Hotel Ritz in Paris a few years ago. It was later purchased at auction by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which at the time only owned a single group portrait by LeBrun. Despite the dearth of LeBrun paintings at the Met, the painting is not currently on display there. Whether this is because the piece is undergoing restoration or, quelle surprise, the museum has nowhere to display it, who knows. 

The practice of large museums like the Met sitting on enormous quantities of art that never gets put on display is something that has bothered me for some time, and in the near future you may be reading some of my lengthier scribblings about that issue. In the meantime, over on Apollo journalist and artist Crystal Bennes has been writing a very interesting series titled “What’s In Store”, in which she highlights some of what is currently held in storage at major museums around the world. She has already visited both the Hermitage and the National Gallery of Scotland, and this month she writes about the Ateneum, the National Gallery of Finland.

A particularly stunning find is the “Bust Portrait of A Black Man” by the Swedish artist Nils Jakob Olsson Blommér (1816-1853), who is known primarily for his somewhat kitschy scenes taken from Norse mythology. This painting languished in storage at the Ateneum for a century and a half until recently, when it was finally put on public display. I think you will agree that it is a haunting, beautifully executed work, in the best tradition of Old Master portraiture.