James Ensor (1860–1949)

James Sidney Edouard, Baron Ensor was a Belgian painter and printmaker. An important influence on expressionism and surrealism,  he lived in Ostend for almost his entire life. He was associated with the artistic group Les XX.

James Ensor, The intrigue, 1890

Image source: https://www.theguardian.com/

James Ensor 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.

Early life and education

James Ensor, self portrait with hat, 1883

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.

Image source: https://www.theguardian.com/

Style and innovation

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.

James Ensor, The oyster eater, 1882

Image source: https://curiator.com/art/james-ensor/the-oyster-eater

The Carnival theme

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.

James Ensor, Skeleton stopping the Masks, 1891

Image source: https://www.sothebys.com/

Printing and etchings

Ensor was a prolific and accomplished printmaker. He created 133 etchings and drypoints over the course of his career, with 86 of them made between 1886 and 1891 during the height of Ensor’s most creative period.

James Ensor, Plague here plague there, 1888

Image source: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/

In 1889, Ensor created two highly political etchings. The first, titled Doctrinal Nourishment, depicts key figures in Belgium—a bishop, the king, etc.—defecating on the masses of Belgium. The second, titled Belgium in the XIXth Century or King Dindon, depicts King Leopold II watching as military figures violently quell a protest. These prints are very rare today because Ensor attempted to remove them from circulation after being named Baron and many others were lost during the war.


Info sources: http://jamesensor.vlaamsekunstcollectie.be/en/biography         https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Ensor                                                                  https://www.theartstory.org/artist/ensor-james/                                                       https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/