Outsider Art from The William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation and Family Collections

The financier William Louis-Dreyfus collected art that reflected America’s complex social history. We look at four artists who inspired his passion for art and justice


William Louis-Dreyfus (1932-2016) was never interested in isms or categories, says American Folk and Outsider Art specialist Cara Zimmerman, and it was this egalitarian outlook that enabled the philanthropist to amass an unusually eclectic art collection.

‘If he liked it, and saw there was skill there,’ says Zimmerman, ‘then he would support that artist wholeheartedly.’ His collection ranged from blue chip modernists such as Alberto Giacometti to important self-taught artists such as Bill Traylor.

In early 2019, 40 works from The William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation and Family Collections were auctioned during Americana Week to benefit the Foundation and the Harlem Children’s Zone. On 17 January, a further 30 works will be offered (see below for full selection).

Louis-Dreyfus — the father of actor Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the star of HBO’s Veep — was attracted to artists whose work had a strong social message. Four artists in particular, who made work about the black experience in America, feature heavily in his collection.

Thornton Dial

Thornton Dial (1928-2016) was born in rural Alabama in 1928 and worked on the Pullman-Standard Railroad. ‘When he retired in the 1980s he started making things,’ says Zimmerman. ‘And it wasn’t until 1987, after Dial had been making these things for several years, that he began to recognise his output as art.’ 

Much of Dial’s output spoke of race relations and war. ‘He used the materials around him — discarded clothing, enamel paint, old mattress springs — to bring to life these ideas and to commemorate the materiality of his community,’ Zimmerman adds.

Bill Traylor and Clementine Hunter

‘There is this misconception that self-taught artists operate in isolation,’ says Zimmerman, ‘but in fact they often work within a community.’ This is certainly the case with Bill Traylor (1854-1949), who would paint on street corners surrounded by children, and the Outsider artist Clementine Hunter (1886-1988) who, like Traylor, was raised on a plantation and remained very much a part of that world.

Hunter developed a huge following through people coming to view her art. Her primary-coloured canvas board paintings depicting plantation life in Louisiana have found their way into the collections of Oprah Winfrey and Joan Rivers.

Nellie Mae Rowe

Another remarkable Outsider artist in Louis-Dreyfus’s collection was Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982), a painter with a magical realist sensibility. She transformed her two-roomed home in Vinings, Atlanta, into a ‘playhouse’, crammed with pastel pictures, crayon and felt-tip pen drawings and chewing-gum sculptures. Her neighbour recalls people stopping and staring in amazement at this ramshackle edifice to creativity.

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Louis-Dreyfus was attracted to the work of these artists because he followed his eye and bought what he loved, paying little attention to whether an artist was already considered ‘established’ or ‘accepted’ by the mainstream collecting community. That so many of the artists he admired had been able to overcome their disadvantaged circumstances to create such art was something he found truly remarkable.

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