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Artists James Ensor
James Ensor Photo

James Ensor

Flemish Painter, Engraver, Writer, and Musician

Movements and Styles: Realism, Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Expressionism

Born: April 13, 1860 - Ostend, Belgium

Died: November 19, 1949 - Ostend, Belgium

James Ensor Timeline


"I do not impose impressions. I attach no importance to labels. I don't like adjectives."
James Ensor
"The illusion of grandeur"
James Ensor, In response to his favorite virtue
"Let us abandon ourselves without pause to the pure kiss of the air, the benefits of the sea, let us nourish our thoughts before our bodies, taste the fruits of space, the perfume and sounds of colors, let us sublimate our ideas."
James Ensor, a note to painters
"Reason and nature are the enemy of the artist."
James Ensor
"My art tends toward the literacy. My pictures tend toward the outskirts of painting: But why generalize? It is possible to realize one thing or another, according to the impressions gained from one point of view or another. But it is too difficult to make a general rule."
James Ensor
"Medicinal sea, west-national sea, adored mother, I want in a fresh bouquet, without surrealist ways, to celebrate your one hundred faces, your surfaces, your facets, your dimples, your Rubescent bottoms, your diamond crests, your sapphire tops, your qualities, your delights, your profound charms. Obliging sea of Ostend, you deign evening and morning, indeed systematically, to embrace our flat coast, whip our dunes, sponge our breakwaters, salt our herring.

Healing sea, spiritual and edifying sea, you bleach cardinal, carnivore, cannibal lips, shrimp juice or bicolores and plastered cement of our stripped bathing Eves."
James Ensor, Medicinal Sea, 1931
"Vision changes while it observes."
James Ensor

"Finally, hemmed in by followers, I have happily confined myself to a solitary milieu where the mask is enthroned full of violence, light and splendor. For me the mask means Freshness of tone, overly shrilled expression, sumptuous scene, great unexpected gestures, reckless movements, exquisite turbulence."

James Ensor Signature


Although educated in traditional painting, Ensor quickly stepped off that path and began to develop a revolutionary style that reflected his own take on modern life. He was particularly fascinated with the popular carnival culture organized around the celebration of Mardi Gras each year throughout Belgium, most certainly influenced by the fact that his family's shop in Ostend was a main purveyor of carnival paraphernalia. The imagery he produced is consistently cynical and mocking; presenting an almost grotesque form of Realism meant to record the stresses underlying contemporary social morays of his time, and probably of all times.

Key Ideas

Ensor developed a revolutionary method of painting better suited to his personal agenda. Abandoning the usage of illusionism and one-point perspective to organize the image depicted, he began to build volume with patches of color across the surface of the canvas. The effect was imagery that no longer receded but instead, threatened to enter the viewer's space. Crowded to the point of bursting, denied room to breathe, the figures in Ensor's works impress with their presence.
The artist was particularly intrigued by the carnival theme and found it an excellent means by which to capture society's foibles. He masked his figures, giving them faces that would express their inner selves rather than their outer, anatomical ones. In this way he was able to dig beneath the surface and reveal the "true face" of society. His exploration of society unmasked eventually caused his rejection by many, even the local avant-garde artists.
Ensor's social commentary, at first subtle, eventually took on a furiously cynical tone. While it could be noted in the inclusion of a jesting element within an image it could also be a full-blast attack on a subject as sacred as the Entrance of Christ into Jerusalem. There's no question that the artist's continual feeling of rejection was responsible for his frenzied critiques, but the end result was simply further alienation.

Most Important Art

James Ensor Famous Art

Portrait of the Painter in a Flowered Hat (1883)

Portrait of the Painter in a Flowered Hat represents Ensor in a three-quarter view, openly confronting the viewer's gaze. His use of loose, feathery brushstrokes and the juxtaposition of colored areas on the canvas to suggest volume and the emphasis on differentiating light in order to suggest depth, typify the contemporary portraiture work of the Impressionists who were already painting in Belgium and Holland from the 1870s.

Like many artists before him, Ensor received great inspiration from the tradition of the great masters. This portrait recalls the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens' Self-Portrait with Hat, (1623-25). Despite the vague similarities between the two images they actually differ quite a bit and there is a clear sense that Ensor is making a joke of the tradition of the old master who he ostensibly emulates. The hat he sports, adorned with pastel flowers and feathers, was part of a traditional Belgian costume worn by women during the mid-lent carnival. And although the facial hair seems close to that of Rubens', he works blue flame-like whiskers into his mustache in a very untraditional manner. Although both depicted figures have an intense expression, suggesting something of their state of mind, Ensor alleviates the unhappy set of his own mouth with the gaiety of the hat.

This painting's light-hearted motifs represent a transition in Ensor's work from his "somber period" to his "light period;" the move from Realism to some form of whimsical reality. It marks the beginning of his experimentation with playful subjects and alternate meanings.
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James Ensor Artworks in Focus:



James Sidney Ensor was born in Belgium in 1860. His father James Frederic Ensor and mother Maria Catherina Haegheman owned a souvenir shop in the tourist town of Ostend, selling carnival novelties and seaside trinkets. The shop, full of innovative motifs and objects, inspired Ensor throughout his artistic career. He had a happy and carefree upbringing, living with his mother, father, sister and aunt. He went to school at the College Notre-Dame but showed very little interest in learning. He struggled within the structured disciplinary environment and after two years withdrew from school.

Early Training

James Ensor Biography

Ensor showed an aptitude for painting at thirteen and received instruction from two Ostend watercolorists, Michel Thomas Anthony Van Cuyck and Edouard Dubar. As he recounted, "Van Cuyck and Dubar, both pickled and oily, professorially initiated me to the disappointing commonplaces of their dreary, stillborn, and stubborn craft." He enrolled at the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts at the age of seventeen and worked there under the tutelage of Joseph Stallaert, Alexandre Robert and Jef Van Severdonck. Ensor rejected the formal instruction prevalent in the Academy and found creative ways to enliven the mandatory study of antiquity. As he explained: "The moment I arrived, a big problem appeared on the horizon. I was ordered to draw Octavius, the most august of the Caesars, from a white plaster bust. The snowy plaster horrified me. I reproduced it with vibrant pink chicken skin, reddening the hair and causing a great commotion among the students."

Despite causing a scandal, he was allowed to continue his education at the Academy and was permitted to paint from live models. After three years he left the institution, calling the school an "establishment of the short-sighted."

During his years at the Academy, Ensor befriended many other liberal minded artists including Fernand Khnopff, Théo van Rysselberghe, Guillaume Van Strydonck and Theo Hannon. Together they founded the Belgian group of painters, designers and sculptors who would become known as Les Vingt and was responsible for the publication of two artistic journals, La Jeune Belgique and L'Art Moderne. Les Vingt, established in 1883 as an independent artist's group, worked with neither the constraints nor restrictions incumbent to the official Belgian Salon. Other independent artists, such as Georges Seurat, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Vincent Van Gogh, were also invited to include their works among those of Les Vingt.

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James Ensor Biography Continues

Ensor exhibited six works at Les Vingt's first show in 1884. Irate critics deplored his paintings and among the negative reactions were comments like "That is painting? No way! It is garbage!" His work was also termed: "Sickening studio rubbish" and "Sinister Idiocies." Although troubled by the reviews, Ensor continued to paint at a steady rate.

Ensor's early career, lasting about five years, is labeled his "somber period" and is characterized as belonging to Realism. Among the subjects of focus were middle class interiors, self-portraits, and still life paintings, all painted with layers of thick paint in warm colors. Despite the dark interiors, the artist's fascination with the study of light, similar to the Impressionists, is clear. This particular aspect of his painting was considered too revolutionary in Belgium, and accordingly, his works went unsold.

Mature Period

James Ensor Photo

During his "somber period" Ensor painted a work, titled Scandalized Masks (1883), which would lead him in the direction now known as his "light period." Lasting for about fifteen years, this next stage was characterized by the depiction of masks and other carnival paraphernalia. Gradually his work was considered too progressive for Les Vingt and his submissions to the group were rejected. The sculptor Achille Chainaye even requested his official dismissal from the group. This issue was actually put to a vote and although Ensor was able to remain a member, Chainaye resigned. Despite being an outcast in one of the more avant-garde groups of the time, Ensor continued to exhibit with them until they disbanded in 1893.

Ensor's deviant style caused him to become a target of ridicule in Ostend. The rumors about him led his mother and aunt to turn their back on him. He became depressed and his failing art career and the lack of support from his contemporaries drove him to move to Brussels where he sought refuge with the family of Ernest Rousseau, a professor of physics and the Rector of the University of Brussels. It was at Rousseau's house that Ensor befriended Eugene Demolder, who would become one of his biggest supporters, as well as other local intellectuals, artists, and free thinkers. The anarchistic and atheist views of this group served as a major source of inspiration for the artist.

While at the Rousseau's home, Ensor showed off his eccentric personality by assuming the role of the joker, sometimes playing pranks on the family's friends, as well as strangers. Sometimes he went so far as to plagiarize the works of the major masters he studied such as Courbet, Hokusai, De Braekeleer, Rembrandt, Watteau, Bosch, Turner, Manet, and Bonnard.

Ensor returned now and then to Ostend to visit his girlfriend, Augusta Boogaerts, whom he nicknamed "the Siren." She was ten years his junior, had a charming personality and worked at his family's souvenir shop as a salesgirl. Although his parents disapproved of their relationship and they were never to marry, their romance continued throughout his lifetime.

Ensor's circle of friends in Brussels admired his work and wrote enthusiastic reviews of it in local magazines, including la Plume. It is believed that his success as an artist was due to their emphatic critiques. Following great success, he became a founding member of the Free Academy of Belgium in 1901 and was made a "Chevalier" of the Order of Leopold in 1903. While his reputation thrived and his talent came to be admired, his creativity gradually began to dwindle. The decline of the artist's enthusiasm for life can be attributed to any one of the many disappointments he experienced: the loss of his father, his newfound success, and/or the lack of stimulation and encouragement he'd formerly received at the Rousseau's home.

Late Years and Death

James Ensor Portrait

Ensor's final period, known as the "crystalline period," began at the turn of the twentieth century and lasted fifty years). These works are characterized by vivid colors that scarcely cover the canvas, hesitant lines and the absence of internal structure. While a few were considered innovative and masterful, most were repetitions of earlier paintings and subjects. While he continued to receive official awards - he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Belgium in 1925, made a baron in 1929, presented with the Legion of Honor, had a bust chiseled in his honor by Edmond de Valeriola, and a work of music, James Ensor Suite, composed by Flor Alpaerts - he continued to retreat even further from the public. While his paintings commanded a higher price than any other living Belgian artist, his output dwindled.

Augusta pushed him to continue to work, keeping close track of his paintings, making an inventory of his oeuvre and curating their sale. Ensor was not accustomed to having such an authoritative figure in his life, overseeing his production and the story goes that: "One day, she went out and Ensor left a note on the table 'do not take anything; I have counted everything." On his return she left him a note, "Do not count anything; I have taken everything."

Ensor's death in 1949 caused a spectacle throughout the Belgian community. Cabinet ministers, generals, judges, bishops and artists came to pay their respects. He was buried in the cemetery of Notre-Dame des Dunes, in Mariakerke.


Ensor received a great deal of recognition during his lifetime due to his wedding of technical innovation to social criticism. His explorations, independence from tradition, and purposeful break with reality place him in a category of his own. Aspects of his work were influential in the later formation of a number of significant artistic movements including Symbolism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. For example, his willingness to critique the society in which he lived influenced a range of artists such as Derain, Munch and Picasso, while his use of bold, expressionistic color that adheres to the surface of the canvas and refuses to recede in any traditional manner, affected the works of Matisse, Bonnard, and the German Expressionists.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

James Ensor
Interactive chart with James Ensor's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart


Édouard ManetÉdouard Manet
Francisco GoyaFrancisco Goya
Peter Paul RubensPeter Paul Rubens


Honore de BalzacHonore de Balzac
Edgar Allan PoeEdgar Allan Poe


James Ensor
James Ensor
Years Worked: 1877 - 1949


Marc ChagallMarc Chagall
Henri MatisseHenri Matisse
Pierre BonnardPierre Bonnard


Emile VerhaerenEmile Verhaeren
Maurice MaeterlinckMaurice Maeterlinck



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Content compiled and written by Sheryl Siclari-Ostyn

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Caroline Goldberg Igra

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sheryl Siclari-Ostyn
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Caroline Goldberg Igra
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Useful Resources on James Ensor






The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.


James Ensor Recomended resource

By Jacques Janssen

James Ensor (French Edition)

By Emile Verhaeren


James Ensor Recomended resource

By Susan W. Canning and Anna Swinbourne

James Ensor: The Temptation of Saint Anthony

By Susan M. Canning and Patrick Florizoone, Nancy Ireson, Kimberly Nichols, Herwig Todts

More Interesting Books about James Ensor
A Macabre Kingdom of Masks

By Mary Tompkins Lewis
The Wall Street Journal
March 15, 2013

Ensor's Curiosity Shop, Nightmares of Gruesome Beauty Recomended resource

By Holland Cotter
New York Times
June 25, 2009

James Ensor's Very Public Obsessions

By Lori Waxman
The Chicago Tribune
January 15, 2015

The Art Institute of Chicago. "Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor."

Close up of James Ensor's Temptation of Saint Anthony

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