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James Ensor

James Ensor
Portrait of James Ensor by Henry De Groux, 1907
Born James Sidney Ensor
(1860-04-13)13 April 1860
Ostend, Belgium
Died 19 November 1949(1949-11-19) (aged 89)
Ostend, Belgium
Nationality Belgian
Education Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, Brussels (Belgium)
Known for Painting
Movement expressionism, symbolism
The Rower, 1883, oil on canvas, 79 x 99 cm, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp
Ensor in front of "Entry of Christ into Brussels" in his house in Ostend, 1940's, photo by Albert Lilar

James Sidney Edouard, Baron Ensor (13 April 1860 – 19 November 1949) was a Belgian painter and printmaker, an important influence on expressionism and surrealism who lived in Ostend for almost his entire life. He was associated with the artistic group Les XX.


  • Biography 1
  • Art 2
  • Influence and legacy 3
  • Notes 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7


Ensor's father, James Frederic Ensor, born in Brussels of English parents,[1] was a cultivated man who studied engineering in England and Germany.[2] Ensor's mother, Maria Catherina Haegheman, was Belgian. Ensor himself lacked interest in academic study and left school at the age of fifteen to begin his artistic training with two local painters. From 1877 to 1880, he attended the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, where one of his fellow students was Fernand Khnopff. Ensor first exhibited his work in 1881. From 1880 until 1917, he had his studio in the attic of his parents' house. His travels were very few: three brief trips to France and two to the Netherlands in the 1880s,[3] and a four-day trip to London in 1892.[4]

During the late 19th century much of his work was rejected as scandalous, particularly his painting harmonium, and spent much time performing for visitors.[6] Against the advice of friends, he remained in Ostend during World War II despite the risk of bombardment. In his old age he was an honored figure among Belgians, and his daily walk made him a familiar sight in Ostend. He died there after a short illness, on 19 November 1949.


While Ensor's early works, such as Russian Music (1881) and The Drunkards (1883), depict realistic scenes in a somber style, his palette subsequently brightened and he favored increasingly bizarre subject matter. Such paintings as The Scandalized Masks (1883) and Skeletons Fighting over a Hanged Man (1891) feature figures in grotesque masks inspired by the ones sold in his mother's gift shop for Ostend's annual Carnival. Subjects such as carnivals, masks, puppetry, skeletons, and fantastic allegories are dominant in Ensor's mature work. Ensor dressed skeletons up in his studio and arranged them in colorful, enigmatic tableaux on the canvas, and used masks as a theatrical aspect in his still lifes. Attracted by masks' plastic forms, bright colors, and potential for psychological impact, he created a format in which he could paint with complete freedom.[7]

The four years between 1888 and 1892 mark a turning point in Ensor's work. Ensor turned to religious themes, often the torments of Christ.[8] Ensor interpreted religious themes as a personal disgust for the inhumanity of the world.[8] In 1888 alone, he produced forty-five etchings as well as his most ambitious painting, the immense Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889.[9] Also known as Entry of Christ into Brussels, it is considered "a forerunner of twentieth-century Expressionism."[10] In this composition, which elaborates a theme treated by Ensor in his drawing Les Aureoles du Christ of 1885, a vast carnival mob in grotesque masks advances toward the viewer. Identifiable within the crowd are Belgian politicians, historical figures, and members of Ensor's family.[11] Nearly lost amid the teeming throng is Christ on his donkey; although Ensor was an atheist, he identified with Christ as a victim of mockery.[12] The piece, which measures 99½ by 169½ inches, was rejected by Les XX and was not publicly displayed until 1929.[10] After its controversial export in the 1960s, the painting is now at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.[10]

As Ensor achieved belated recognition in the final years of the 19th century, his style softened and he painted less. Critics have generally seen Ensor's last fifty years as a long period of decline.[9] The aggressive sarcasm and scatology that had characterized his work since the mid-1880s was less evident in his few new compositions, and much of his output consisted of mild repetitions of earlier works.[13] Significant works of Ensor's late period include The Artist's Mother in Death (1915), a subdued painting of his mother's deathbed with prominent medicine bottles in the foreground, and The Vile Vivisectors (1925), a vehement attack on those responsible for the use of animals in medical experimentation.

Influence and legacy

Death mask of James Ensor
The annual Bal du Rat mort (Dead Rat Ball) is held in Ostend.

James Ensor is considered to be an innovator in 19th-century art. Although he stood apart from other artists of his time, he significantly influenced such 20th-century artists as Alfred Kubin, Wols, Felix Nussbaum,[14] and other expressionist and surrealist painters of the 20th century.

The yearly philanthropic "Bal du Rat mort" (Dead Rat Ball) in Ostend continues a tradition begun by Ensor and his friends in 1898.

His works are in many public collections, notably the Modern Art Museum of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, and the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Ostend. Major works by Ensor are also in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, and the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne. A collection of his letters is held in the Contemporary Art Archives[15] of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels. The Ensor collections of the Flemish fine art museums can all be seen at the James Ensor Online Museum.[16]

James Ensor (2013) by the Belgian painter Willy Bosschem

Ensor has been paid homage by contemporary painters[17] and artists in other media: he is the subject of a song, "Meet James Ensor", recorded in 1994 by the alternative rock duo They Might Be Giants. The 1996 Belgian movie, Camping Cosmos, was inspired by drawings of James Ensor, in particular Carnaval sur la plage (1887), La mort poursuivant le troupeau des humains (1896), and Le bal fantastique (1889). The film's director, Jan Bucquoy, is also the creator of a comic Le Bal du Rat mort[18] inspired by Ensor.

An exhibition of approximately 120 works by James Ensor was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2009, and then at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, October 2009 – February 2010. The Getty mounted a similar exhibition June–September 2014.[19]

A poster of Ensor's Self-Portrait with Flowered Hat (1883) can be seen hanging in the bedroom of Laurie Strode in the 1978 horror film Halloween.


  1. ^ Farmer 1976, p. 7.
  2. ^ "Info – Ensor Advisory Committee". Retrieved 2014-06-02. 
  3. ^ Ensor et al. 2005, p. 21
  4. ^ Becks-Malorny 2000, p. 94
  5. ^ Becks-Malorny 2000, p. 95
  6. ^ Becks-Malorny 2000, p. 91
  7. ^ Gindertael 1975, p. 114
  8. ^ a b Arnason 2004, p. 95
  9. ^ a b Farmer 1976, p. 32
  10. ^ a b c J. Paul Getty Museum. Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889. Retrieved 18 September 2008.
  11. ^ Becks-Malorny 2000, p. 48
  12. ^ Becks-Malorny 2000, p. 43
  13. ^ Becks-Malorny 2000, pp. 87–88
  14. ^ Becks-Malorny 2000, p. 92
  15. ^
  16. ^ "". Retrieved 23 August 2015. 
  17. ^ Mohammed, Nisha. American fundamentalists: Christ's entry into Washington in 2008. An interview with Joel Pelletier. Rutherford Institute, 5 July 2006. Retrieved 18 September 2008.
  18. ^ Flemish newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, 5 October 1981, Marc Wilmet: "Jan Bucquoy laureaat van het stripverhaal".
  19. ^ "James Ensor's massive menace, minute malign fantasies on display at the Getty | Off-Ramp | 89.3 KPCC". Retrieved 2014-09-26. 


  • Arnason, H.H. (2004). History of Modern Art. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.
  • Becks-Malorny, Ulrike (2000). James Ensor. Cologne: Taschen. ISBN 3-8228-5858-7
  • Berko, Patrick & Viviane (1981). "Dictionary of Belgian painters born between 1750 & 1875", Knokke 1981, p. 272–274.
  • Ensor, J., Pfeiffer, I., Hollein, M., & Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt. (2005). James Ensor. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz. ISBN 3775717021
  • Farmer, John David (1976). Ensor. New York: George Braziller.
  • Gindertael, Roger Van (1975). Ensor. Boston: New York Graphic Society Ltd.
  • Janssens, Jacques (1978). James Ensor. New York: Crown Publishers Inc.
  • Xavier Tricot, Ensoriana, Pandora, Antwerp, 1994
  • Xavier Tricot, James Ensor, Life and work. Catalogue raisonné of his paintings, HatjeCantz, Ostfildern, 2009
  • Xavier Tricot, James Ensor. The complete prints, Deceuninck, Roeselare, 2010

Further reading

  • New York Museum of Modern Art (2009). James Ensor. ISBN 0-87070-752-3.

External links

  • James Ensor Online Museum
  • James Ensor Archief – Publications by or with cooperation of Patrick Florizoone
  • Skeletons fighting for a smoked herringThe Royal Museums' Modern Art Collection: 19th-century symbolism, with Ensor's
  • Exhibition at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Antwerp: "Ensor and the Moderns"
  • The Getty Museum: James Ensor
  • Flemish Art Collection: James Ensor, Graphic Artist
  • 2009 Special Exhibition at KMSKA"Goya, Redon, Ensor Grotesque paintings and drawings"
  • 2009 Ensor show at Museum of Modern Art, NYC
  • Sanford Schwartz, "Mysteries of Ensor," New York Review of Books, 24 September 2009.
  • I Ensor on YouTube, a 1972 documentary film by director Paul Haesaerts about James Ensor

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