Colour, drama and rebellion: Commemorating James Ensor

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The Intrigue (1890), oil on canvas, 90 x 150 cm., Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp

November 19, On This Day

Ensor at his house in Ostend, 1940s

A Belgian painter and printmaker who had a tremendous influence on expressionism and surrealism, James Ensor, born in April 1860, passed away today, 72 years ago, on November 19, 1949.

He was famously associated with the artistic group Les XX, a group of 20 Belgian painters, designers and sculptors, formed in 1883 by the Brussels lawyer, publisher, and entrepreneur Octave Maus. Each year 20 other international artists were also invited to participate in their exhibition, which included names like Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh.

Ensor’s early works depict realistic scenes in a somber style, but his palette subsequently brightened and he favored increasingly bizarre subject matter. Subjects such as carnivals, masks, puppetry, skeletons, and fantastic allegories are dominant in his mature work. Ensor was further a prolific printmaker. He created 133 etchings and drypoints over his career, with 86 made between 1886 and 1891 during the peak of his creative period.

Afternoon in Ostend (1881) oil on canvas, 108 x 133 cm., Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp

In the turning point of four years between 1888 and 1892, he turned to religious themes, often the torments of Christ. In 1888-89 alone, he produced 45 etchings as well as his most ambitious painting — the immense Christ’s Entry Into Brussels, considered “a forerunner of 20th-century Expressionism”. It was rejected by Les XX and was not publicly displayed until 1929. After its controversial export in the 1960s, the painting is now at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889 (1888), oil on canvas, 256.8 x 378.4 cm., the Getty Museum

In the same year, he created two highly political etchings. The first, titled Alimentation Doctrinaire, depicts key figures in Belgium — a bishop, the king, etc. — defecating on the masses. Prints are rare as Ensor attempted to remove them from circulation after being named Baron; many were lost in the war.

Alimentation Doctrinaire (1889) etching, 17.8 x 24.8 cm., Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp

In the final years of the 19th century, his style softened. Many see his last 40-50 years as a long period of decline, but a few “superb and poignant” are noted, such as The Artist’s Mother in Death (1915), and The Vile Vivisectors (1925), a vehement attack on the use of animals in medical experimentation.

Ensor significantly influenced such 20th-century artists as Paul Klee, Emil Nolde, George Grosz, Alfred Kubin, Wols, Felix Nussbaum, and other expressionist and surrealist painters of the 20th century.

The Vile Vivisectors (1925), oil on canvas, dimensions and collection unknown

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