James Ensor….reason and nature are the enemy of the artist.

 Ensor, James

Date of birth and death: 1860-1949
Nationality: Belgian

Except for three years studying history and religious painting at the Brussels academy, James Ensor, a Belgian painter, printmaker, and draftsman, lived in Ostend, Belgium, all his life. He began his artistic career as a portrait painter but soon became involved with the avant-garde group Les XX (the Twenty), whose goal was to promote new artistic developments throughout Europe. Although Ensor was considered the group’s leader and founder, he had sharp differences of opinion with other group members. Art critics treated the group harshly, and Les XX disbanded after a decade.


The old lady with Masks


My art tends toward the literary. My pictures tend toward the outskirts of painting: But why generalize? It is possible to realize one thing or another, according to the impressions gained from one point of view or another. But it is too difficult to make a general rule.

Although all three of these Belgian Modernist artists have an international reputation, the work of James Ensor is not as recognisable in the same way as that of Paul Delvaux or René Magritte. Ensor‘s work is indeed especially varied and since the advent of Post-Modernism, surprisingly topical again. Ensor is then also a genuine ̳artist‘s artist‘.

James Ensor is not only an exceptionally talented colourist, but also one of the great 19th-century Realists. From 1876 to 1884 he was a radical, adherent to the plein aire movement that was pre-dominant in Europe-Realism, free from aesthetic, literary and moral conventions. The artist demonstrated this propensity in numerous, nearly empty seascapes, still lifes and in fifteen intimate interiors. His nearly pure pictorial importance appeared from the virtuoso manner in which he applied the paint with the palette knife.

Moreover, no one has examined light as a source of mystification like Ensor. From 1885 until around 1890, he practiced a creative method in his drawings and sketches, in which light experiments were combined with associative or surreal grotesques. Autobiographical motifs are mixed with societal ones.

However, the most striking realisations he produced as a painter were humourous masquerades and grotesque persiflages. For Ensor, the mask is an instrument of an expressionistic demasqué: he reveals the true malicious and ridiculous nature of humans. This emancipation from the caricature will be a source of inspiration for the German Expressionists.

Herwig Todts

Dedicated website to the Belgian artist showing a comprehensive biography, images of his artworks including their research sources.


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