The etching Doctrinal Nourishment (1889/1895) was a particularly scathing attack on what Ensor saw as the unquestioning subservience of society. King Leopold II, a soldier, a magistrate, a nun, and a bishop sit on a wall, their bare bottoms exposed, as they defecate on a fawning crowd below them. When Ensor finally received the recognition he craved and was made a baron, he bought up every copy of the print he could find and destroyed them, making it one of the rarest today.
One could also argue that Ensor’s primary inspirations came from his immediate surroundings: the trinkets, curios, and masks that filled his mother’s shop; the streets of Ostend itself; and the North Sea, which was only a few hundred yards from his studio.
Masks were a perfect metaphor for what Ensor saw as the hypocrisy and complacency of society. In The Entry of Christ into Brussels (1889), one of his most celebrated masterpieces, Ensor portrays himself as the shunned and neglected Christ, the rigid masks of the surrounding masses suggesting their unthinking adherence to conventional attitudes. The Intrigue (1890), meanwhile, is often seen as an expression of his suspicious views of the institution of marriage. A hideous female figure with a self-satisfied leer grasps a top-hatted male who appears to glance despairingly away. Although Ensor maintained a lifelong relationship with a woman named Augusta Bogaerts, they would never live together, let alone marry.
Like many artists before him, Ensor was also fascinated by the symbolic power of skeletons. He frequently portrayed himself in skeletal form, as in The Skeleton Painter (1896) or My Skeletonised Portrait (1889). There is a strong element of memento mori in all this, but also a macabre sense of humor, especially when he turned skeletons into semi-sentient beings, warming themselves around a fire or fighting over the body of a hanged man. In Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring (1891), they represent critics savaging his art (the French words for pickled herring—hareng-saur—sound remarkably like “art Ensor”).