James Sydney Ensor is one of the most surprising artists of the 19th Century. Although he lived until after the Second World War, his finest work dates from the period 1880 - 1905.
Born in the Belgian seaside town of Ostend, to an English father, an unsuccessful engineer, and a Belgian mother from a family of souvenir shop proprietors, James displayed early talent and by the age of 20 was producing good quality, but rather heavy and sombre, genre pieces.
Around 1880 a transformation began. Inspired perhaps by the local tradition of carnivals, perhaps by the paintings of Turner, and certainly by his unhappy home life - his father had taken to drink - his palette lightened and he began a long series of bizarre paintings, drawings and etchings which often featured masks, skeletons, and satirical themes. Another theme was 'the crowd', which features in his most famous etching 'The Cathedral' and his masterpiece, the painting 'The Entry of Christ into Brussels'. The latter features Christ looking suspiciously like the artist and is now in the Getty collection at Malibu, California, USA.
Other striking canvases include 'The Intrigue', where sinister masked figures lure a hapless colleague to an unguessable crisis; the 'Self-Portrait in a Flowered Hat', in which he over-painted an earlier showy portrait in imitation of Rubens with an absurd bright ladies hat; and 'Two Skeletons Fighting Over a Hanged Man' seems to reproduce the absurdist excursions taken on the dunes of Ostend by Ensor and his friend Rousseau. They would dress up in strange costumes and hold mock sword-fights. Very typical is the self-portrait painting in his studio, based on a photograph by a friend... except that Ensor has replaced his own head with a skull. This also recalls his etching 'Myself in 1960', produced around 1880, which shows a skeleton crumbling into dust.
Rise and Fall
Ensor became successful, and with success began his artistic decline. He was even created a Baron by the Belgian king, who had enjoyed his satirical, and rather rude, drawing of 'Bathing at Ostend'. For about the last 20 years of his life, he lived over a souvenir shop bequeathed to him by an aunt, which he kept with all its stock, although it was never open for business. Ensor never married, though he did have close relationships with lady friends, and his later life was serene and convivial, belying the sombre themes of his early works. Nevertheless, in his obsessions with the crowd, the mask and 'the skull beneath the skin', he anticipated many themes in 20th Century art and life.
He is buried outside the pretty church at Mariakerke, just outside Ostend.