Ensor, James (1860–1949)

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ENSOR, JAMES (1860–1949)


Belgian painter.

A painter, printmaker, and musician, James Sydney Ensor was also a writer who expressed his deepest aspirations in various texts, lectures, and an extensive correspondence. Critics have often sought to compare him to Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) for his use of light; to Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516) for his cynicism; and to Rembrandt (1606–1669), Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), and Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828) for his remarkable etched engravings. In fact, Ensor was a unique and unclassifiable artist who opened a path that helped painters acquire the freedom to express their most intimate thoughts by the use of rare and original chromatic choices.

James Ensor was born on 13 April 1860 in the city of Ostend, Belgium, on the North Sea coast. His father, who was English, and his mother owned a souvenir shop and sold seashells, masks, and chinoiseries to the tourist trade. Ensor's entire universe was already present in his parents' small shop, often visited by his maternal grandmother, who was fond of costume disguises and carnival folklore. Later, Ensor would say that this exceptional background enabled him to develop his artistic faculties, and he credited his grandmother as his great inspiration.

On 1 October 1877 Ensor enrolled at the Fine Arts Academy in Brussels, where he proved to be a mediocre student. Three years later he returned to Ostend and settled back to live with his parents. He put up a small studio in the attic with a beautiful view of Ostend and its environs. Here he created his first major paintings, including Chinoiseries aux éventails (Chinoiseries with fans), Le lampiste (The lamplighter), Une coloriste (A colorist), Le salon bourgeois (The bourgeois salon), and Musique russe (Russian music). In addition to his immediate surroundings, Ensor let himself be guided by ambient light, his major source of inspiration, which transfigures the real and blurs the classical line. But he was not associated with the impressionists, who sought to reproduce the vibrancy of light itself; Ensor aspired to give it a solid, particulate form. His search for a vision led him to destroy many of his early canvases, although personal rancor over their uneven reception may have also played a role.

As a young artist, however, Ensor also won acceptance in several artistic circles, including the Chrysalide, L'Essor, and Les XX, which was directed by a lawyer, Octave Maus. Although he contributed to every exhibition of the latter group, his participation was much discussed, and some of his works were rejected, including L'entrée du Christ à Bruxelles (Christ's entry into Brussels) in 1889. The same year, he finally hit upon the use of pure color. After having painted seascapes, landscapes, interiors, flowers, and still-lifes, he now started a series of masks and carnival crowds, caricatures of the bourgeoisie, scenes of death and evil, and self-portraits both burlesque and Christ-like.

Despite his fecundity during this period, Ensor progressively became a recluse in Ostend. Surrounded by females, including his mother, aunt, and sister "Mitche"—as well as his faithful friend Mariette Rousseau, to whom he often wrote—he became increasingly misogynist. Feeling himself criticized by family and misunderstood by the avant-garde, Ensor, fearful of being forgotten, became obsessed with creating an enduring reputation. To this end, he developed skills as an engraver, which through printmaking provided him with an ideal way to disseminate works otherwise deprived of audience or outlet.

In 1894 Ensor mounted his first one-man show in Brussels, thanks to support from his friend Eugène Demolder, the author of an 1892 book about Ensor subtitled Mort mystique d'un théologien (Mystical death of a theologian). In 1916 came the first complete monograph devoted to his work, by Emile Verhaeren, another friend. After 1900, although he continued to paint prolifically, it seemed to be with diminished inspiration; his major works were behind him. At the same time, the new century brought recognition both within Belgium and internationally, beginning with the acquisition of one hundred etchings from the Albertine of Vienna. In 1903 King Leopold II (r. 1865–1909) knighted Ensor, and in 1923 Ensor was admitted to the Royal Academy of Belgium. During the same period, his musical talent was encouraged by his friends Albin and Emma Lambotte, who gave him a harmonium in 1906. He wrote the score for a ballet-pantomime La gamme d'amour (The scale of love), which he finished in 1911, having not only composed the music but also designed the sets, costumes, and texts. Ensor wrote a great deal and so became not only a painter but also ENSOR; he put himself on stage, so to speak, becoming the incarnation of his favorite pun, "Hareng-saur" (literally, "salted herring"; phonetically, "Ensor's Art"). His writings shared the sense of provocation found in his paintings. But it was the painter who was admired, recognized, and ennobled—his title of baron came in 1929. Ensor died on 19 November 1949 in Ostend, his cradle of inspiration.

See alsoPainting, Avant-Garde; Surrealism.


France, Hubert de. James Ensor: Proeve van gecommentariëerde bibliografie = essai de bibliographie commentée. Brussels, 1960.

Taevernier, August. James Ensor: Catalogue illustrédeses gravures, leur description critique et l'inventaire des plaques. Ledeberg, Belgium, 1973.

Tricot, Xavier. James Ensor: Catalogue Raisonnéofthe Paintings. 2 vols.London, 1992.

Virginie Devillez