Tony Herbert (1902–1959) was one of the most important Belgians collectors of his time. After studying civil engineering at the University of Leuven, Tony Herbert settled in Kortrijk in 1928 as director of the spinning mill "Kortrijkse Katoenspinnerij". Since the late 1930s he focused on creating a collection of art, which only after World War II would be fully developed.
Tony Herbert concentrated first and foremost on the work of Gustave De Smet, and by 1946 he had assembled a collection of more than sixty paintings and drawings by this artist. Tony Herbert also acquired a number of works through Galerie Apollo in Brussels, among others by Edgard Tytgat, Jean Brusselmans and Rik Wouters. After World War II, Tony Herbert focused on the further expansion of the ensembles around the previous artists and Constant Permeke. For Herbert all these artists undoubtedly represented the force of the art. The originality of the work of these artists assured the continuity of the old masters tradition and was also the expression of a modern community.
The tributes that the Herbert couple organised in their Sporenhof home in honour of these artists from the collection are legendary. Herbert’s visionary manner was to defend the qualities of “his artists” through a broad network and thus to perpetuate the international recognition of their artistic importance.
In a catalogue text from 1963, Emile Langui paid homage to Tony Herbert: “That enthusing about Permeke was due to his strong character, but additionally, that his falling under the sweet spell of Tytgat and De Smet pointed towards a fine, hypersensitive trait in this energetic temperament.[…] And perhaps here we touch upon the very core of Tony Herbert’s mentality in relation to the art of his contemporaries: a subtle blend of order and instinct, of harmony and exuberance, of regularity and passion, of professionalism and fantasy.”
Tony Herbert died in October 1959, at the age of 57. Selected works from the Tony Herbert Collection were still viewable in 1962 and 1963 in Kortrijk (Stedelijk Museum), Almelo (The Waag), Amersfoort (Zonnehof) and Blankenberge (Kursaal). Part of the collection was finally secured for museum viewings. In October 1985 the municipal council from the city of Bruges approved the purchase of fifteen paintings and a sculpture from the Tony Herbert Collection. In May 2010, a second purchase of six paintings followed to enlarge the collection of the Bruges museums. The three works of Gustave De Smet, Constant Permeke and Rik Wouters are among the last ones in private collection.
"Gustave De Smet's contribution to Flemish art is certainly considerable; the most significant art movement of the interwar period in Belgium owes its existence in part to him. (...) While De Smet was among the artists to unleash the force of Expressionism, he was also the one who knew how to harness this force and use it to formulate the principles of an art form based on balance, wisdom and the classical style, which still simmers with a quiet, concentrated energy."
Paul Haesaerts, Laethem-Saint-Martin, Le village élu de l'art flamand, p. 298
Painted in 1931, De Minnaars (The Lovers) typifies a series of artworks depicting timeless couples, which Gustave de Smet created at the peak of his career.
An emblematic figure of European expressionism, Gustave de Smet started to paint at the beginning of the 20th century. His style radically evolved during World War I under the influence of various European artistic movements, like Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism. From this time onward, he kept asserting his personal style, that of a synthetic pictorial language which involved silent and monumental characters. Some art historians called this highly recognizable artistic vocabulary “constructive expressionism”. “Expressionism” refers to his engagement with emotions which emerge from the surface of things. The term “constructive” indicates that the expression of these emotions should emerge in an intellectually-mastered visual language which is founded on a harmonious palette of colors.
After the war, De Smet developed this approach further, whose ambition was to elegantly blend cubism and expressionism, especially under André Lhote’s and Fernand Léger’s influence. In the scenes depicted by De Smet, such as those representing circuses, carnivals, fairs, etc., people become increasingly simplified and reduced to their basic features, while being reminiscent of some scenes by Karl-Schmidt Rottluf. Here, the couple is frontally depicted in a range of autumnal browns. These colors, which are indicative of the artist’s color palette, evoke the feeling of peace and eternal majesty which pervades De Smet’s entire oeuvre.
Acquired by several prestigious collectors, such as Fernand Graindorge, before entering the collection of Tony Herbert, this painting was exhibited multiple times across the world, including in Belgium, France, Italy, Brazil, Switzerland, Netherland, and Germany. This fact demonstrates its significance in the artist’s oeuvre as well as in the art from the second half of the 20th century.
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