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James Ensor Photo

James Ensor Artworks

Flemish Painter, Engraver, Writer, and Musician

Born: April 13, 1860 - Ostend, Belgium
Died: November 19, 1949 - Ostend, Belgium

Progression of Art

Portrait of the Painter in a Flowered Hat (1883)

Portrait of the Painter in a Flowered Hat

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.

Oil on canvas - Ensor Museum, Ostend, Belgium

Christ's Entry into Brussels (1889)

Christ's Entry into Brussels

This painting, no question Ensor's most famous, represents a carnival mob engulfing Christ sitting on a donkey. Although traditional in subject, the presentation is anything but. The formal means by which he describes this chaotic scene defy an easy understanding of what is being depicted. There is a vague sense of a vanishing point perspective. In the foreground, the grotesque faces, painted as if wearing masks, are enormous, and seem to loom in the viewer's face, but as they recede into the background, coming together in a "V," they blur into dots of color. Nevertheless, this is countered by a more modern approach to building volume. Ensor flattens out the figures across the surface of the composition, denying the perspective he's built in order to make the image more pressing and intense. There is even a sense that the crowd is slightly tipped forward, ready to rush out at the viewer and engulf her at any moment. Figures in the crowd are depicted from multiple angles, their shapes and forms deconstructed, and their volume is suggested through the juxtaposition of unmodulated dabs of pure, unsaturated color. This almost primitive, simplistic technique resembles that utilized by Gauguin. As Ensor described: "My colors are purified, they are integral and personal."

Leopold II of Belgium had remade Brussels into a modern city with royal monuments, streamlined facades and broad new boulevards along the model of Haussmann in Paris, but by the late 1880s the country's state of affairs was similar to that of the infamous Paris Commune. The country struggled with economic and political oppression that Ensor captures by transforming Brussels into a sea of disorder and chaos.

Ensor's Christ faces a Belgian public instead of one in Jerusalem. The crowd depicted is a mixture of bourgeoisie, clergy, and the military - basically the ruling class. Individuals are illustrated masked in order to emphasize their superficiality in a carnival-like atmosphere - at the same time as a religious, serious event is supposedly depicted. The strength and intensity of the masses suggest the artist's interest in giving those marginalized by society a voice, enabling them to speak out against figures of authority. This chaotic spectacle takes the focus off the figure of Christ. Christ himself has interestingly been painted with the artist's own features, expressing his empathy with the biblical figure, purposefully representing himself as a martyr.

Ensor found the use of a kind of grotesque realism cleansing and, despite the fact that his representation of the ugly side of society through mystical parody met with harsh criticism; he used this technique throughout his career. In this way his work shares the avant-garde impulse toward social, formal, and libidinal rebellion and anticipates many modern movements from Fauvism to Surrealism, and even Abstract Expressionism.

Oil on canvas - The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California

The Baths at Ostend (1890)

The Baths at Ostend

Here, Ensor draws a whimsical scene, paying homage to his beloved Ostend Sea. By this time the town of Ostend had become a seaside resort, known for its casino, boardwalk, beach, and restorative baths. Ensor uses colored pencils, crayons, and oil to represent this quirky vacation spot. He adds a decorative effect by describing the water and figures with arabesque lines which resolve into a sea of caricatures, drawn on multiple planes, representing the seaside resort as a crowded spectacle. Ensor refrains from using linear perspective and instead, draws his figures across the canvas with a restricted palette of black, blue and red, creating a dream-like space.

In total, Ensor represents this summer playground for the middle-class in a satirical manner. He paints the tourists as caricatures. While overall the scene depicted seems to be a happy one, a sunny day where tourists are enjoying themselves, it also depicts them missing clothing, and a few of which are shown upside down with their heads between their legs- in the midst of vulgar acts. Accordingly, when viewed up close, this painting takes on a somewhat comic and most definitely unsettling effect, it runs counter to the social decorum expected of the bourgeoisie. Ensor's work offers a very clear critique of the contemporary social milieu in which he lived, anticipating movements like Dadaism.

Black crayon, colored pencil and oil on panal - Fondation Challenges, Paris, France

Masks Confronting Death (1888)

Masks Confronting Death

Masks Confronting Death exemplifies Ensor's usage of masks to reveal the underside of society. Although the instigation for including this prop may have come with his awareness of them in his family's shop, he was most probably attracted to their ability to both hide the specific identity of the figure depicted and simultaneously add a note of intrigue and mystery. In this case the masked figures are even scarier than the figure of Death at the center. In fact, shrouded in a white garment and tucked under a hat, Death seems almost cowering in the face of society's mockery. The appearance of masks within early modern art increased around the turn of the century, as their ability as expressive tools was understood. While Ensor's masks are more mocking in nature, primitive masks were noted in works by Gauguin, Derain, and Picasso.

In this image Death looks out at the viewer, actually confronting her with his gaze.

Ensor was struggling with the recent death of his father at the time the work was created and his inclusion of the motif may indicate his attempt to deal with his own mortality.

Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York

The Vengeance of Hop Frog (c. 1910, backdated to 1896)
c. 1910, backdated to 1896

The Vengeance of Hop Frog

This work represents Edgar Allan Poe's short story, The Vengeance of Hop Frog (1845) wherein the title character, a court-jester, is the victim of social and class injustice inflicted by the king and clergy. Ensor chooses to illustrate the final scene of the story when Hop-Frog exacts his revenge on the king and clergy at a masquerade ball, stringing them up on a chandelier, above the party, and setting them on fire.

Ensor represents a whimsical scene filled with expressive, arabesque lines and pastel colors. Furthermore, the artist uses linear perspective to create a feeling of depth, capturing the enormity of receding space by framing the scene in an arched theatre. Many of the figures are grotesque, broken up in such a way that they appear more abstract concepts of human beings than realistic representations of the same.

Beyond offering a satirical way to highlight the dark side of political and religious figures within modern society, Ensor's representation of Poe's story suggests his frustration at receiving unfair and cruel judgment on the part of contemporary critics. In general, Ensor's dependence on literature as a source of inspiration for his work aligns him with other Symbolist artists at the time like van Gogh and Gauguin.

Oil on canvas - Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1887)

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

Ensor's painting represents Anthony the Great of Egypt (c. 251-356) resisting the temptations of the devil. The monumental painting includes fifty-one sheets of paper, mounted side by side on canvas. It is assumed that the individual drawings, varied in nature but all with acidic color bound by line in a volume-defying style, were part of a book of drawings inspired by Flaubert's narrative. By representing Saint Anthony surrounded by surreal figures, including, a multi-breasted goddess, a sphinx, nude women, bourgeois men, and musical instruments the artist makes a bold statement regarding the depravity of modern society.

Representing Saint Anthony's battle with the devil may have been Ensor's response to the temptations and ethical concerns of modern society. Ensor specialist Susan M. Canning suggests that the symbolism included in the painting, elements such as distortion, exaggeration and the macabre, would have been easily identifiable to the 19th century viewer as indicators of the degeneracy of humanity within modern society.

Colored pencils and scraping, with graphite, charcoal, pastel and water color, selectively fixed, with cut and paste elements on fifty-one sheets of paper, mounted on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago

Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring (1891)

Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring

This painting depicts two skeletal figures fighting over a pickled herring in an amorphous landscape with pastel sky. The sky engulfs the two figures, whose dark tones make them stand out against the background - infusing the work with a lighthearted, comical nature. While the feathery brushstrokes and palette of the sky somewhat recall Impressionism, the fantastic, grotesque subject in a no-man's land actually anticipates much later takes on reality, such as found in Surrealism.

The painting represents the two critics: Édouard Fétis and Max Sulberger. Their negative responses to Ensor's artwork drove him to portray them in multiple satirical paintings. In this particular work Ensor represents himself as a pickled herring being torn apart by their hateful criticism. The word herring in French, hareng-saur-close, if said with the proper pronunciation, apparently sounded like "art Ensor" or "Ensor's art."

Ensor's intention here, as in many of his other works, was clear: "My favorite occupation is to make others famous, to uglify them, to enrich their ugliness." Ensor discovered an iconography of the grotesque that best enabled him to comment on the injustice and superficiality by which he was surrounded. His development of the macabre was part and parcel of his revelation of society's malaise.

Oil on canvas - Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

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Content compiled and written by Sheryl Siclari-Ostyn

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Caroline Goldberg Igra

"James Ensor Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sheryl Siclari-Ostyn
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Caroline Goldberg Igra
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First published on 22 Jul 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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