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Artists James Ensor
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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.


James Ensor Photo


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.

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James Ensor Biography Continues

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.
View Influences Chart


Édouard ManetÉdouard Manet
Francisco GoyaFrancisco Goya
Peter Paul RubensPeter Paul Rubens
Rembrandt van RijnRembrandt van Rijn

Personal Contacts

Honore de BalzacHonore de Balzac
Edgar Allan PoeEdgar Allan Poe


The BaroqueThe Baroque

Influences on Artist
James Ensor
James Ensor
Years Worked: 1877 - 1949
Influenced by Artist


Marc ChagallMarc Chagall
Henri MatisseHenri Matisse
Pierre BonnardPierre Bonnard

Personal Contacts

Emile VerhaerenEmile Verhaeren
Maurice MaeterlinckMaurice Maeterlinck



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Cite this page

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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