James Ensor

Orfeas Katsoulis | Jan 7, 2024

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James Sidney Edouard Baron Ensor (Ostend, April 13, 1860 - there, November 19, 1949) was a Belgian painter of Symbolism. He is widely recognized as the most important innovator of modern art in Belgium, a deviant individualist who did not easily allow himself to be subsumed into one art movement or another. He was also a composer and writer.


Ensor's father, James Frederic Ensor, had British parents. Ensor's mother was Ostend's Marie Louise Cathérine Haegheman, a woman of simple descent, daughter of lace merchants who could neither read nor write.

The family moved to a new building at the corner of Van Iseghemlaan and Vlaanderenstraat in Ostend in 1876. His mother, together with her sister Mimi, operated a store selling souvenirs, shells, chinoiserie and carnival items such as masks and comic costumes. These items would later act on Ensor's imagination, and the masks often appear later in his works. Some of the floors were operated as rooms for tourists. James was able to set up a small studio in the mansard room. From here he had a good view of the streets and roofs of Van Iseghemlaan and Vlaanderenstraat. This theme will still recur frequently in many of his works. This studio was also used for some time by his friend Willy Finch.

Although he was born in Ostend, James Frederic was enrolled in Brighton, the son of James Rainford and of Anne Andrew, his English grandparents. These English grandparents were pensioners from Sussex. Ensor's father, engineer of Bridges and Roads, left for the United States shortly after little James was born, hoping to make fortune there. It turned out to be a failure and he returned penniless. Ensor said of his father that he was a wise and superior man, an intellectual who spoke several languages. He subscribed to art magazines, which may have influenced his son. However, he could not cope with the failure and, under the coattails of a sober and authoritarian Ostend merchant wife, on whom he was financially dependent, he began to drink and became the shame of the family. He was laughed at as an Ostend drunk and came home once, half shaved with half a mustache left. He died, the day after being brought home in a drunken state by the police, when Ensor was 27 and at the height of his creative period. James Ensor will never forgive the social class, which had ostracized his father, and will continue to despise it in his paintings.

Ensor had a sister Mariëtte, usually called Mietje (he himself called her Mitche), who was one year younger than him. She would become one of his favorite models. She married when Ensor was 32 to a Chinese merchant. It did not turn out to be a successful marriage. She left her husband after a few months, but did have a child with him, a girl who became the sweet care niece Alex and whom Ensor called "La Chinoise." She would later marry at fifteen.

Private life

James Ensor himself was never married. He concealed or mystified his private life as much as possible. As an academy student in Brussels, he came under the impression of Mariëtte Rousseau, wife of Ernest Rousseau and older sister of his friend Théo Hannon. He depicted her numerous times. He did later have a chosen friend: Augusta Bogaerts (1870-1951), the "Siren," whom he painted in the famous double portrait of 1905, when she was 35. This daughter of an Ostend hotel manager was 10 years younger than Ensor, who first met her when he was 28. In 1904 he became acquainted with Emma Lambotte of Liège, an intelligent married woman. He called her his good fairy" and corresponded busily with her. Through this woman he came into contact with François Franck, the inspirer of the Antwerp art circle "Kunst van Heden" (and the later founder of the Ensor collection at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp). In 1914 he gave painting lessons to Alice Frey, who had fled to Ostend due to war conditions and happened to live next door to him. She could thus call herself "the only pupil" of James Ensor


In 1873, the young Ensor attended school at Ostend's Onze-Lieve-Vrouwecollege. He proved to be a disciplinarian there, but he already showed a great fondness for drawing. The archives of the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwecollege contain a booklet "Le petit sécrétaire" with on the title page "A rider on horseback," drawn by the young Ensor. He showed his first drawings and paintings, when he was barely 14, to the then famous master Louis Dubois, who encouraged him. Ensor remained at this school for only two years. He then took painting and drawing lessons with two Ostend artists Edouard Dubar (a marine painter who became a photographer and published lithographs) and Michel Van Cuyck (an oil painter, watercolorist and lithographer). Again, he showed rebellion and did not have a high opinion of their "deceptive sponge and drawing technique, of their dull, bored and stillborn metier."

In 1876 he took drawing classes after the antique and after the live model at the Ostend Academy of Fine Arts. From this period date his first paintings of the sea, the beach and dune and polder landscapes, such as "Dunes" (around 1876), "View of Mariakerke" (1876), "Fort Napoleon" (1876), "The triumphal chariot" (1877), "The bathing coach on the beach" (1877).

Ensor was 17 when he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels on Oct. 8, 1877. It was the only time he left Ostend for any length of time. He stayed away for three years. He rented a small room in Sint-Jansstraat, near the Grand Place. His teachers Joseph Stallaert, Joseph van Severdonck and Alexandre Robert gave him courses in painting and drawing after the classical model. But he got into another spat with his teachers. He became acquainted with some fellow students: Willy Finch, Paul Dubois, Fernand Khnopff, Willy Schlobach, Guillaume Van Strydonck, Rudolph Wystman and Dario de Regoyos.

During this period Ensor drew a number of folk figures from his environment in Ostend, not so much for social reasons, but to further develop his talent for drawing. Also dating from this time are "Breakwater at Ostend" (1878), "Naked Boy" (1878), "Polder Landscape" (1878), "Man with the Wounded Arm" (early 1879), "Self-Portrait" (1879), "The Girl with the Wobbly Nose" (1879), "Ensor in front of the easel" (1879) and the dark charcoal drawing "Female Nude" (1879) (also referred to as "La Bohémienne").

When Ensor was 20 years old, in 1880, he left the academy and with it immediately Brussels. The results of his training had not been so brilliant. He received only a seventh prize for drawing from the classical model and a tenth prize for painting from nature. It made him an angry and bitter man, and he would portray this state of mind in sarcastic and satirical scenes. He returned to Ostend, with his parents at the corner of the Vlaanderenhelling and the Van Iseghemlaan. To escape from his bossy mother, he retreated to the attic and set up his first studio there. From the large attic window he had a bird's eye view of the sea (with its endless shades of light and color, depicted in various navies), of streets, buildings and passersby. Consequently, this view would be reflected in many works. He continued to live here until 1917, and he also produced his best paintings here.

In the same year, 1880, he painted his over-famous "The Boy with the Lamp" in mostly black and ochre, and his works "Gray Sea," "Still Life with Duck," "The Marsh." He remained productive, painting in 1881 his "Flanders Street in the Snow," "Portrait of My Father," "The Bleak Lady," "Afternoon at Ostend," "The Cloudcomber," and "Woman with the Blue Scarf." This was his "dark period" interpreted in his bourgeois interiors in which he depicted the atmosphere of stiffness and boredom with a dark impressionist brushwork. He painted most of his marines in the period 1880-1885. Like his drawings, he painted his navies as a convinced plein airist. His 1885 impressionist painting "Great Navy - Sunset" is one of his larger canvases.

Les vingt

Ensor, supported in his talent by the Brussels avant-garde, sent three paintings (The Colorist, The Bourgeois Salon and Nature morte) to the progressive salon Chrysalide in 1881 and the painting "The Russian Music" to the Exposition Générale des Beaux-Arts exhibition in Brussels in 1882. The painting "The Bourgeois Salon" depicted the stifling atmosphere of his own domestic environment. The painting "Russian Music" refers to the Russian chamber music that had then been recently discovered in Belgium. Ensor later regularly referred to the theme of music in his works ("Portrait of Dario de Regoyos" (1884), "Music in Flanders Street" (1891), "Au conservatoire" (1902) or by inserting musicians or himself as a musician).

He painted his "Portrait of My Mother," "The Oyster Eater" and "The Lady in Distress" in 1882.

From 1882 Ensor joined the art group L'Essor. He participated in the sixth (1882) and seventh (1883) exhibitions of this group. Also in 1885, he appeared at L'Essor's salon.

Ensor's work was rejected several times, including by L'Essor. Most of his paintings were viewed with displeasure or labeled more curious than beautiful with the very craziest representations on them. His entire submission to the Antwerp Salon des Beaux-Arts was rejected. He felt disrespected, "masked," as it were. That entry included "Afternoon at Ostend" (1881) and "The Oyster Eater" (1882), two works that would later be counted among his masterpieces. With "The Oyster Eater," Ensor distanced himself from the dark atmosphere in his previous paintings. He painted his sister in a bright world of color and light. The rejection by the salon and by art criticism meant a great disillusionment for him. He decided to distance himself from objective reality and henceforth go his own way. "The Oyster Eater" was purchased 20 years later by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, at the 1904 Triennial Salon.

He exhibited at the Kursaal of Ostend in 1882 and 1883, at the 32nd Triennial of Ghent (1883) and at the salon of the Société Royale des Aquarellistes Belges (1883).

He painted the dreary existence of "The Drunkards" in 1883 and the colorful canvas "Roofs in Ostend" in 1884, whose tempestuous sky is somewhat reminiscent of William Turner's "The Last Voyage of the Warship Téméraire." In 1887 Ensor, along with Guillaume Vogels, traveled to London to learn more about Turner's work.

Meanwhile, the Brussels lawyer Octave Maus emerged as an enthusiastic organizer, patron, mouthpiece and inspirer of a revolting new group of artists, Les XX. This group, formed in October 1883, grew into a remarkable group of innovators in the Belgian art world. He joined this Brussels progessive artist group and became a founding member. Any painter with some name or on his way to fame would exhibit at Les XX's salons. Both Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Georges Seurat had their first breakthroughs in Brussels.

Ensor exhibited at the first exhibition of Les XX in 1884 with six works. He received rather derogatory criticism, including a first article in L'Art Moderne (a magazine headed by Octave Maus). But his submission to the official Brussels Salon was again refused. He sent twenty works to the 1886 Les XX Salon, but the critic discussed only his technique and not the art value of his works.

He cracked this criticism to the ground in his work "The Calvary" with himself on the cross, as the victim of so much misunderstanding, and the critic as a Roman soldier piercing his side.

He was honored, on the occasion of his appointment as Knight in the Order of Leopold, in 1904 by his friends of the "Cercle Cecilia" , organizers of the carnival festival "Bal du Rat mort" at the Ostend kursaal. The celebration magazine, printed in an edition of only 40 issues and edited by Géo Daveluy, was illustrated by Ensor himself . It contains, in addition to a photograph of Ensor, texts in which he denounces some friends in a carnivalesque manner, followed by a red reproduction of "Devils that sarve me" and some playful chants.

Draughtsman and etcher

At age 25, Ensor developed intestinal problems which led to chronic concerns about his health. His first drawings of the series "Aureoles of Christ" or "The Sensibilities of Light" saw the light of day ("The Adoration of the Shepherds," "Christ is Showed to the People," "Entry into Jerusalem," "Satan and the Fantastic Legions Hurt the Crucified," "The Descent from the Cross and the Ascension of Christ"). His fears and hallucinations were not understood at Les XX. One spoke of a product of a diseased brain. But Emile Verhaeren detected in those works the influence of Rembrandt.

1886 was a turning point in the artistic evolution of Ensor's "Light." He distanced himself from his somber "interiors." He made his first etchings in 1886, prompted to do so by Mariette Rousseau.

He peaked in 1888 with no fewer than 45 etchings, including "Self-Portrait pas fini" (1885) and the masterpiece "The Cathedral" (1886), with which he became equally famous. The Cathedral belongs to a series of 133 graphic works. It is among his most famous graphic works and is also one of the first in which he depicts a crowd. A version of this work was also sold in 1933, colored in chalk.

His etching "Devils roust the angels and arse angels" (1888) captures the atmosphere of works by Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Brueghel the Elder through the use of devils, monsters and masks.

"The Baths of Ostend" is a well-known 1890 work in oil, chalk and colored pencil. He recreated it in 1891 in an ink drawing in India ink on paper and in an etched version. Ensor here playfully and satirically sketches the beau monde and day-trippers on the beach at Ostend on a busy summer day. Because of obvious erotic allusions and the criticism of rank and file, the work was rejected in 1895 (or 1898 ?) at the salon of "La Libre Esthétique." When Ensor complained about this to King Leopold II, Octave Maus even had to give it a place of honor.

With "Christ Calms the Storm" (1891), he struck the bullseye in modernism.

Painting "The Entry of Christ into Brussels"

Beginning in 1885, the figure of Christ takes a central place in Ensor's works. Here he combines the sublime with the grotesque, sometimes conventional, sometimes humorous.

In 1888, when Ensor was 28, he began work on "The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889." This would become his most popular painting, but also one of his most difficult works. However, the work was not finished a year later to be exhibited at the Salon of Les XX.

It had become a monumental work 2.58 meters high and 4.31 meters long. His attic studio was not high enough and he had to nail the canvas to the wall, leaving the lower part on the floor. For such a monumental work, Ensor could not use an expensive tube of paint. He asked a house painter to prepare lacquer paint in 5 and 10 kg pots. He then painted the paint undiluted in large strokes, layer by layer, rolling the painting up a bit each time.

Ensor used a biblical theme, namely the entry of Chistus into Jerusalem, but he transposed the fact to Brussels. Hidden in the scene is Christ (facial features by Ensor?) sitting on a donkey, accompanied by a cheering crowd, a brass band and a motley procession of masks. Thousands of grotesque figures stream forward from the background, with masked characters in front, with whom Ensor mocks: the haughty judge, grinning soldiers, fisherwomen, the smug bourgeoisie, a mockingly infatuated couple, a doctor in a wizard's hat, Death in frak, a pair of musicians from the "Fanfares doctrinaires," and finally, at the very front, a pompous bishop playing tambourine major. To the right stand the mayor and his aldermen in clown costume. At the top spans a banner reading "Vive la Sociale" (Rise of the Socialist Party). Ensor basically put the whole crowd to shame and made everyone look like fools. He situated this entrance in Brussels because he had experienced so much disappointment there.

For 29 years, the canvas remained rolled up in his attic studio, at the corner of the Vlaanderenramp. Yet a photograph from that period exists in which we see the work somewhat clumsily nailed to the wall of the studio with numerous other works. He could not really nail it up until 1917, above his harmonium, when he moved to his new home on Vlaanderenstraat. This house, today's Ensor House, he inherited from his uncle Leopold. When the work was transported to Paris for the major 1929 exhibition, a section of the gable balcony first had to be demolished. This was done again for the exhibition in Brussels in 1939.

Eugène Demolder was among the small circle of intellectuals who stood up for Ensor and wrote the first monograph on him "Mort Mystique d'un théologien." In 1892, Demolder wrote: "... The painter Ensor (...) is one of the first in Belgium to be challenged by the modern search for light. He is an innovator (...) We have seen what variety and suppleness Ensor brings to his paintings ...".

The canvas was slightly damaged by some shrapnel during World War II. It subsequently hung in several places: in Venice (1950), in the Casino of Knokke (1971), at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ostend (1977-1978), on loan to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Chicago and New York (1976) and the Kunsthaus in Zurich (1983). It was purchased in 1987 by the Getty Museum in Malibu, Los Angeles where it was ably restored. There is also a copy in the Ensor House in Ostend.

This work has assumed mythic proportions in the history of modern art. It anticipated, or even initiated, the expressionism of the twentieth century. However, one finds in this work the influence of earlier masters such as Hieronymus Bosch, Peter Paul Rubens, William Hogarth, Francisco Goya, William Turner to Georges Seurat.

The thick layers of pigment that push the lilliputian frenzied crowd forward from the background into the masks in the foreground are almost a grotesque parody of the flat spaces in the paintings of Les XX. This daring painting, an anachronism by the standards of 1889, must have represented a veritable assault on contemporary conventions of beauty. The raw ugliness of the subject must not be inferior to the multiplicity of colors in this work, the willed confusion in the composition and the total abandonment of a perspective from a single point. One already has to go far ahead in art history, to the brutal deformations of post-1945, to find something similar in the works of Willem de Kooning, Jean Dubuffet and the Cobra movement.

Ensor made an etching of this in mirror image on Japanese paper in 1898 (collection Royal Library AlbertI, Brussels).

The figure of Christ in the works of Ensor

Ensor used the figure of Christ several more times, usually in an allegorical sense, such as "Christ Offended" (etching, 1886), "The Dying Christ" (1888), "Christ Calms the Storm" (1891), "The Man of Sorrows" (1891) (a distorted self-portrait), "Christ and the Critics" (1891), "The Temptation of Christ" (1913).

Between 1912 and 1920, he drew 31 lithographs "Scenes from the Life of Christ" , reusing several previous drawings. He published them in 1921 in the form of an album in a limited number of numbered and signed copies (edition Galerie Georges Giroux).

In 1887, Ensor drew The Temptation of St. Anthony, a vitriolic, liberal satire on 51 sheets of a sketchbook. In it are hundreds of miniature drawings featuring Eastern gods, devils, sex and, again, a Christ. This work was subsequently exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Free Aesthetics

Because of fierce bickering among the artists, Octave Maus dissolved the art circle Les XX in 1893, although James Ensor protested vehemently. Maus founded a new art circle La Libre Esthétique, this time without members, but only invited guests. Ensor wanted to call it quits and wanted to sell all his works for 8,000 Belgian francs, but found no buyer. In his misfortune, misunderstood and criticized by his contemporaries, he went on, but it was precisely because of this that his creative power grew.

Eventually his distinct vision became more and more accepted by art connoisseurs. In 1893, the Brussels Print Room purchased a large number of his engravings (he had made 44 in 1888).

In 1894 Ensor was invited to the first exhibition of "La Libre Esthétique" and he himself, together with Guillaume Vogels, founded the "Cercle des Beaux Arts d'Ostende" in his city. The same year he sold 25 engravings to the Print Room of Dresden. In December of that year and prompted by Eugène Demolder, he organized his first own exhibition at the Comptoir des Arts Industriels La Royale in Brussels. This initiative aroused the interest of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, which purchased "The Lampist," the magnificent 1880 work, the following year for 2,500 Belgian francs.

In 1898 he participated in the Salon des Cents in Paris with 25 works, but the expected success did not materialize. Nevertheless, a special issue of "La plume" appeared in 1899, devoted to Ensor's works at this exhibition. And the same year the Albertina in Vienna bought one hundred of his engravings. In this year he also painted the well-known "Self-Portrait Surrounded by Masks" in which he represented himself in the midst of his art, a mask among masks.

Ensor's mother died on March 8, 1915 at the age of 80. He drew her four times and painted her twice in those days after her long agony (Mu.ZEE collection, Ostend). Her sister, his aunt Mimi, died two years later. With that he said goodbye to the two women who played a defining role in his upbringing at the time. Ensor once said in a table speech that his mother and his aunt had steered him financially through his most difficult years.

Ensor and his masks

James Ensor's early oeuvre did not yet include masks. But as he felt ignored or rejected by the art world, he increasingly came to oppose them. A conflict situation developed between him and society, so he used highly charged images such as masks, skeletons, death, carnival and transvestites to make that society look foolish.

He found inspiration for his masks (and his shells) in his mother's souvenir store. Some of these masks still exist and are kept in the Ensor House in Ostend.

A first work with masks "Annoyed Masks" dates from 1883. It was not yet as symbolically charged, but rather a representation of a carnival disguise or possibly a reference on his father's drinking habit. Here the figure still holds a mask in front of his face. In later works, figure and mask form a unit. Skeletons first appeared in the 1885 painting "Skeleton views chinoiseries" and demons in the 1886 etching "Satan and the fantastic legions torment the crucified one" (series Aureoles of Christ). Carnival and travesty appeared in "Carnival on Beach" from 1887.

From 1888, things went upward with his well-known works: "The Entry of Christ into Brussels" (1888), "Masks Defy Death" (1888), "Masks View a Negro Magician" (1888) (in fact an overpainted work from his 1879 academy days), "The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse" (1889), "The Old Lady with the Masks" (1889) and finally his over-famous "The Intrigue" (1890), "The Masks and Death" (1897), "Baptism of the Masks" (1891), "The Despair of Pierrot" (1892), "Self-Portrait with Shells and Masks" (1917).

In fact, Ensor used masks to unmask. He wanted to expose the true but hidden face of his mocking or evil figures.

Skeletons and death are the main theme in : "Skeletons fighting over a hanged man" (1891), the drawing "Death persecutes the flock of men" (1887), "Demons tormenting me" (1888), "The multiplication of fishes" (1891), "Pierrot and skeletons" (1905 and 1907), "Flowered skulls" (1909).

James Ensor, in his struggle against established society, often chose the common man. A striking example is the colored drawing "The Strike" (1888). Other examples include "The pisser" (depiction of a bourgeois man), "The good judges" (1891), "The gendarmes" (1892), "The bad doctors" (1892), "In the music conservatory" (1902).

Admission to the peerage

Although in the meantime he had exhibited in Hanover (1927), Berlin, Dresden, Mannheim (1928) and Leipzig, 1929 became Ensor's glory year. Then his largest and most important retrospective was organized at the Palace of Fine Arts in Brussels. For the first time, his controversial "Entry of Christ into Brussels" was exhibited and he was inducted into the peerage as James Baron Ensor (oil and black pencil on panel). On April 13, 1930, he even unveiled his own statue with his motto "Pro Luce" in the front gardens opposite the Ostend Kursaal. Meanwhile, he had reached the age of 70.

Ensor produced about 850 paintings during his lifetime, about a third of which were still lifes.

James baron Ensor died on Nov. 19, 1949, at the age of 89, at the clinic of the Sacred Heart in Ostend and is buried next to the tower of his beloved church of Our Lady of the Dunes, in the Ostend borough of Mariakerke.

He was a faithful visitor to the concerts and recitals at the Kursaal Ostend. James Ensor played piano, recorder and harmonium as a self-taught musician. The harmonium was a gift from collectors Albin and Emma Lambotte.

Without ever having received any musical training, he began to improvise and compose from 1906. Unable to write or read music, he had his compositions notated by others (such as Michel Brusselmans and Georges Vriamont) and arranged for harp, organ, carillon, string quartet, flute quintet and symphony orchestra.

He himself played his own compositions before an audience several times, albeit in an unorthodox manner. In later years he sometimes considered himself a musician rather than a painter, but received little recognition for this. The organ virtuoso Auguste De Boeck considered his compositions more like unpretentious dance tunes.

His compositions were mostly dances and exuded a bourgeois salon atmosphere. His to be named:

2010 was an important year with a number of exhibitions of Ensor's work. It was then 150 years since his birth in Ostend. Following are some entries:

The Ensor House in Ostend (Vlaanderenstraat 29) was renovated and expanded in 2020. The museum consists of the artist's original home and an interactive experience center in the adjacent building. Temporary exhibitions take place there. It also owns a death mask by Ensor.

Ensor's archives are at the Archives of Contemporary Art in Belgium and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp.


  1. James Ensor
  2. James Ensor
  3. Dit huis is in 2000 afgebroken.
  4. ^ Farmer 1976, p. 7
  5. Luc de Heusch, présentation à Émile Verhaeren, Sur James Ensor, Éditions Complexe, 1999, page 18.
  6. Xavier Tricot, James Ensor - Catalogue raisonné des peintures (volume 1), Petraco-Pandora (ISBN 90-5352-005-8), p. 13
  7. Farmer 1976, p. 7.
  8. http://www.jamesensor.org/info
  9. Ensor et al. 2005, p. 21
  10. Becks-Malorny 2000, p. 94

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