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James Ensor - Biography and Legacy

Flemish Painter, Engraver, Writer, and Musician

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

Biography of James Ensor


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

Ensor showed an aptitude for painting at thirteen and received instruction from two Ostend watercolorists, Michel Thomas Anthony Van Cuyck and Édouard 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.

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

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

Ensor's final period, known as the "crystalline period," began at the turn of the 20th 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.

The Legacy of James Ensor

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.

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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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