The Artist Who Depicted Life as a Macabre Carnival

Cath Pound
Jun 18, 2018 7:22PM

James Ensor, The Bad Doctors, 1895. Photo via The Athenaeum.

In Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man (1891), two bony figures in flamboyant dress duel over an effigy of a hanged man, while a crowd of mysterious masked figures looks on. The 19th-century Belgian artist James Ensor is best known for such images of eerily animated skeletons and carnival masks. Though he worshipped light, the painter was equally drawn to the dark, fascinated by the shadowy recesses of his bourgeois home—and he brought this sensibility to life in macabre compositions.

Ensor’s idiosyncratic vision bewildered contemporary critics and alienated the avant-garde circles he participated in during the early years of his career. He eventually came to accept this outsider status, seeing it as a necessary prerequisite for his artistic development. He became convinced that only future generations would recognize his genius.

While he would ultimately be vindicated, receiving recognition in his late years, it came at a time when most critics believed he was in creative decline. Yet his early experimental work would be celebrated for generations to come for its curious blend of themes and stylistic innovation. “Like few other painters before or since he juxtaposed the mundane with the sublime, the individual with the masses and the profane with the sacred,” writes artist Xavier Tricot in a text about Ensor’s work.

Ensor would leave behind an oeuvre that also extended to landscapes, biblical scenes, portraiture, still lifes, and caricature—as well as his prolific output in the graphic arts, in the form of numerous prints and etchings.

Who was James Ensor?


Ensor was born in the Belgian coastal resort of Ostend in 1860 to a Flemish mother and an English father. His mother’s family owned a series of souvenir shops whose contents, ranging from shell sculptures to stuffed animals and carnival masks, would provide a rich source of inspiration. One of Ensor’s earliest memories is of his grandmother standing at the foot of his bed, dressed in traditional peasant costume with a terrifying mask covering her face, in preparation for the annual Ostend carnival. She would also take him for walks along the coast, instilling a lifelong passion for the light and textures of the North Sea.

Ensor enrolled at the prestigious Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1877, but the young artist lacked enthusiasm for the academic milieu. His early work was often met with confusion by his teachers, and by 1880 he had left this “den of the short-sighted,” as he called it, to pursue his own vision.

Retreating to his parents’ home, Ensor established a studio in the attic, in which he would continue to work until 1917. He began to sketch and paint both the contents and inhabitants of the dark old house in an almost obsessive manner. The results were innovative still lifes in which light and shadow play over an eclectic array of chinoiserie, glassware, and food items, imbuing them with a mysterious life of their own. In The Red Apples (1883), the richly colored fruit laid out on a white tablecloth have an otherworldly vitality, appearing almost to have rolled themselves into place.

Ensor’s work “clearly departed from realism and he sought, under the influence of Impressionism, to explore the full potential of light,” writes author Sabine Bown-Taevernier. He also transformed domestic interiors into disturbingly oppressive environments that convey an unsettling quality of things not being quite as they seem. In The Dejected Lady (1881), a woman in black sits alone in the corner of a shaded room and stares pensively down at the gloves she holds in her hands, her melancholic reverie as inexplicable as it is disquieting.

Ensor received his first exhibition in 1881 at the Salle Janssens in Brussels, but achieved neither critical nor commercial success—though he did have support among his peers, at least initially. The Antwerp salon’s rejection of his painting The Oyster Eater (1882) was one of the catalysts for the formation of Les XX, a group of 20 artists, designers, and sculptors with more avant-garde sympathies than the relentlessly conservative establishment.  

It was in the late 1880s, however, that Ensor made a seismic leap, and the more traditional subjects of his early years gave way to wild flights of the imagination populated by skeletons and ambiguous, faintly menacing masked figures. The somber palette of his youthful works exploded into vivid color.

He had used masks as a motif as early as 1883 in Scandalized Masks, in which a large-nosed figure gazes up meekly at an intimidating bespectacled woman with a baton—a work that is frequently interpreted as a veiled depiction of Ensor’s father being caught in the act of drinking by his mother. But these newer works, like Strange Masks (1892), were altogether more ambiguous.

What inspired him?

James Ensor, The Oyster Eater, 1882. Photo via The Athenaeum.

The influence of English art on Ensor has long been acknowledged, with J.M.W. Turner’s paintings being particularly important, as—like Ensor—he “believed light radiated from colour of which it was the source,” writes art historian Michel Draguet. Turner’s influence is abundantly evident in paintings by Ensor such as Christ Calming the Storm (1886) or Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise (1887), in which a sense of the sublime renders the human figures almost incidental.

Ensor had a broad knowledge of art history, which he drew on especially in etchings that suggest the influence of Rembrandt, Francisco de Goya, Hieronymus Bosch and Jacques Callot, among others. Prints such as Hop-Frog’s Revenge (1898) also drew directly on literary sources—in this case Edgar Allan Poe, whose fantastic imagination must surely have fired up Ensor’s own.

As Ensor became increasingly frustrated with a society that failed to appreciate him, his work took on a biting, satirical, and often scatological turn, owing much to English caricaturists such as James Gillray, George Cruikshank and Thomas Rowlandson. Images like The Good Judges (1894) and The Bad Doctors (1895), for example, represent characters and events drawn directly from real life in a crude and cartoonish fashion.

James Ensor, Christ Calming the Storm, 1886. Photo via The Athenaeum.

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”).

Why does his work matter?

James Ensor, The Intrigue, 1890.

Ensor’s significant impact is widely acknowledged by art historians. Today he is often cited as a precursor to some of the most important artistic movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from Symbolism, Expressionism, and Fauvism to Surrealism and Postmodernism. His work “opened a new world of urban anxiety that would soon become a central theme in Northern European painting,” writes art historian Robert Rosenblum. It is evident in everything from Edvard Munch’s existential Scream (1893) to the urban nightmares of George Grosz and Otto Dix. Ensor’s eerie, claustrophobic interiors also foreshadow those of Edouard Vuillard and Vilhem Hammershoi, while his animated skeletons prefigure the work of Paul Delvaux and Belgian Surrealism in general.

As Rosenblum writes, “Whenever one turns to trace new themes and new disruptions of conventional form and paint handling in modern art, Ensor is there.”  

Cath Pound