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Impressionist & Modern Art

A Father & Son's Remarkable 20th Century Collection

Sotheby’s presents an important collection of works brought together with passionate care by the Mairlot family in Belgium during the 20th century.

The group of works gathered by Oscar Mairlot and his son belong to the great tradition of Belgian collections created in the period between the two World Wars and during the 30-year post-war boom. It reveals the love of a generation of intellectuals and industrialists for “Belgian” Surrealism embodied by René Magritte and Paul Delvaux, as well as Dutch Expressionism (Constant Permeke, Oscar and Floris Jespers, Edgard Tytgat) and their predecessors, James Ensor, Rik Wouters and the international avant garde, such as Ossip Zadkine and Fernand Léger amongst others.

The 1950s and 1960s also reflect the taste of a new generation marked by Belgian and foreign artists frequently exhibited on the walls of the period’s national galleries: Bram Bogart, Victor Vasarely, Zao Wou-Ki, Serge Poliakoff.

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From right to left: Oscar Mairlot junior, the artist Edgard Tytgat and Oscar Mairlot senior, circa late 1940s.

These collectors were above all enthusiasts who belonged to several committees and associations related to modern art, whilst often lending their works in order to promote it to a wider audience. They did not settle for simply buying artworks but were also close friends with many of the artists they collected. Alongside his various professional and philanthropic activities, Oscar Mairlot senior developed elective affinities with certain artists. Edgard Tytgat was a close friend and the two men met regularly. The artist depicted the industrialist in his painting La chute des anges gardiens in 1939.

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René Magritte, Portrait d’Oscar Mairlot, 1961, Private collection.

The collection also includes Clair de lune sur l’Alster by Tytgat whose career took off at the same time as the major representatives of Dutch Expressionism, favoring a popular, naïve and narrative aesthetic, so that he became an exceptional storyteller with a modern and original style. As for René Magritte, Mairlot the elder became close to him when his wife began to take painting lessons with the Surrealist artist. Many works by the latter thus entered the collection, including abstract constructions from the 1920s, a word-painting, and finally, a portrait.

The collection of Oscar Mairlot senior is a veritable tribute to modernity in Belgium, as it integrates works by two of the precursors to Surrealism. Firstly, James Ensor's Harmonie en bleu (1919), which includes some of the themes favoured by the artist, in a still life that is typical of his practice. Secondly, Rik Wouters, concludes this group of works with a sculpture and a portrait of his muse, Nel, who constantly made herself available for the painter’s works, allowing him to free himself from the influence of Ensor to become one of the pioneers of fauvism in an intimate and personal style. This notion of intimacy was moreover one of the common themes of the Mairlot collection, which is both familial and representative of its era.

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Oscar Mairlot junior and his wife with art dealer and gallerist Isy Brachot III, circa 1990s.

This approach was also adopted in the choices of Mairlot's son, also named Oscar (1921-2005). An active member of the Jury of Young Belgian Painting in Brussels, he enjoyed intense friendships with many artists and in particular the painter Jean Milo, of whom he was one of the most fervent supporters.

A passionate advocate of children's education, he also supported the Young Friends of the Museum project. Like his father, he loved to travel and developed a passion for India and the East, echoed in the major work on paper by Zao Wou-Ki that he purchased for the collection. He passed this passion for art and travel on to his children, and particularly to his daughter Hélène Mairlot (1961-2016) who created among others the company Via Arte, a pioneering association in the organisation of private collections across the world.

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