James Ensor, the man behind the masks

  • Themes: Art

When the Belgian artist James Ensor died 75 years ago, he left behind a set of paintings that seemed to glory in the macabre. His art, however, reveals a profound passion for light, religion and music.

James Ensor's 'Christ's Entry into Brussels', 1889.
James Ensor's 'Christ's Entry into Brussels', 1889. Credit: classicpaintings / Alamy Stock Photo

This year marks 75 years since the death of James Ensor, an artist who has long been part of the cultural fabric in his native Belgium, but who remains less familiar or somewhat misunderstood in the wider world. Best known for the enigmatic masks and skeletons which populate his most famous works, the broader sweep of his oeuvre is often overlooked. An ambitious programme of exhibitions in Brussels, Antwerp and Ostend aims to rectify that situation, making it clear that Ensor was much more than just a painter of the macabre.

Ensor’s work embraced still lifes, landscapes, domestic genre scenes, political satire, and religious imagery, and was by no means limited to painting. He was one of the most original printmakers of the late 19th century, as well as a gifted draughtsman, set designer, and musician.

Ensor was born in 1860 in Ostend, on the edge of the North Sea, where his family owned a souvenir shop. He was a curious, rather eccentric character, convinced of his own originality but irascible and highly sensitive to any criticism. A reluctant traveller, he sought instead inspiration in his immediate surroundings and the depths of his imagination, and Ostend served him perfectly in this regard. Although he frequently complained about the town, saying it was populated by ‘a public of oysters (who) don’t want to see painting’, he would depict its streets, beaches, and surrounding dunes time and time again.

He studied at the Academy in Brussels from 1877 to 1880, and began exhibiting in the capital soon afterwards, becoming part of an emerging avant-garde alongside figures such as Fernand Khnopff and Théo Van Rysselberghe, with whom he founded the avant garde artists’ group Les XX (The Twenty) in 1883.

While seascapes, still lifes, domestic interiors, and portraits of friends and family were favourite subjects for the young Ensor, the 1880s saw a gradual transition as increasingly bizarre themes and motifs came to dominate his work, in particular the carnival masks for which he is now well known. The effect of these masked faces, with their blank eyes and mysterious, inscrutable faces, was uncanny; at once both humorous and horrific. While others may have used masks as an enigmatic means of hiding a person’s identity, Ensor was the first to use them to reveal a human being’s true nature, and the result was unsettling to say the least.

Ensor was also obsessed with the idea of mortality, ‘the eternal black night, death under the colourless earth’, but treated the subject in darkly comic terms. Works such as My Skeletonised Portrait (1889) and The Skeleton Painter (1896) depict the artist stripped of all flesh but still gamely going about his daily business, while My Portrait in 1960 (1888) imagines him mouldering in his grave a century after his birth.
Conservative critics were aghast, dismissing his works as ‘ignoble sights!’, ‘sinister idiocies!’, and ‘sickening studio rubbish!’, which both wounded Ensor and led him to cultivate the image of a perennial outsider constantly at odds with his contemporaries and critics. By the late 1880s he had largely distanced himself from the art world, including his colleagues in Les XX.

He retreated almost completely to his studio above the family shop in Ostend, where he had access to a treasure trove of weird and wonderful objects which could be repurposed any way he chose, including in his utterly Ensorian ‘haunted’ still lifes featuring an array of masks eerily hovering above the compositions. In later life he recalled that: ‘I spent my childhood in the paternal shop surrounded by curiosities from the sea and the splendours of mother-of-pearl with a thousand iridescent gleams and bizarre skeletons, monsters and marine plants. The proximity of these wonders, the colours, this light-filled, gleaming opulence undoubtedly helped turn me into a painter in love with colour and sensitive to the dazzling play of light.’

Along with masks and skeletons, light would be the driving inspiration behind James Ensor’s art. Having been raised on the shores of the North Sea, he developed a passion for its mercurial properties at an early age, and spoke of it in rapturous terms as if it were a kind of living force which could express every conceivable emotion.

Light seeps into every corner of his mature seascapes, whose intense luminescence often brings them close to abstraction, suggesting an almost mystical, primordial chaos with light as its source. Even his still lifes, which make up a remarkable third of his oeuvre, can be seen as studies in light. Indeed, many of them were painted on small mahogany panels built up with layers of highly diluted transparent colour to heighten their luminosity.

And then there is religion. Although himself an atheist, biblical imagery played a major role in Ensor’s work, albeit in highly unconventional ways. He repeatedly returned to religious themes, from a series of large scale drawings The Aureoles of Christ (1885-6) to a set of satirical prints depicting The Seven Deadly Sins (1904). Most importantly, however, he identified with Christ as a figure of torment and mockery. A work such as The Man of Sorrows (1891) is a thinly veiled self-portrait of the artist himself, while the connection is made explicit in Calvary, or Ensor on the Cross (1886), which shows Ensor being crucified at Golgotha, his side pierced by a spear wielded by one of his most vocal critics, Edouard Fétis.

Ensor was also a politically engaged artist during an especially turbulent period in his nation’s history. Belgium in the late 19th century was a profoundly conservative society undergoing a period of rapid industrialisation and a brutal campaign of colonial exploitation in the Congo. New ideas were fomenting closer to home, with the formation of the Belgian Labour party in 1885 and a series of strikes and mass demonstrations throughout the country, many of which were forcibly suppressed by the military.

James Ensor followed these events closely, and the radical ideas he encountered during his time in Brussels sat well alongside his own feelings of persecution and outsiderdom. Taking inspiration from the scurrilous and frequently scatological humour of British caricaturists such as Gillray, Rowlandson and Cruikshank, he produced numerous works that ruthlessly pilloried all figures of authority, from the monarchy, clergy, and military to doctors, lawyers and (of course) art critics.

Mass demonstrations also appear frequently in his work, from an exquisite etching such as The Cathedral (1886) to his monumental masterpiece, Christ’s Entry into Brussels (1889), which again casts Ensor in the role of Christ in the midst of a carnival procession, surrounded by a crowd of masked revellers who seem to utterly oblivious to his presence.

After light, religion, and politics, Ensor’s other driving interest was music. As his artistic output declined in the latter years of his life, he spent hours improvising on the harmonium installed in his studio, becoming an accomplished amateur musician. He even composed his own ballet, La Gamme d’amour, which premiered in 1929 on the occasion of a major retrospective in Brussels, designing the sets and costumes himself.

By this point he had effectively become part of the establishment. The critical tide had turned in his favour during the 1890s, and by 1929 he had been made a baron. He became a well-known character in Ostend, where he still lived above the family shop, which is now a museum devoted to his life.

The general perception is that James Ensor’s best work was behind him by the turn of the century, but there are many gems to be found from his later years, not least his moving depiction of My Dead Mother (1915) or the self-portrait, Ensor in his Studio (1933), in which he sits at his beloved harmonium, staring out at the viewer, with the enormous canvas of Christ’s Entry into Brussels hung on the wall behind him. It is a quietly triumphant image, encompassing everything that makes him unique, and hinting at the scale and diversity of his ambition. As he once wrote: ‘The artist must invent his style, and each new work demands its own.’


Cath Pound