James Ensor: Chronicle of his Life

Xavier Tricot, Ensor scholar and author of his catalogue raisonné, has written James Ensor: Chronicle of His Life, a summary biography of James Ensor (1860-1949). Ensor is a significant artist in the development of Post-Impressionism and the foundation of Expressionism and has gone to be one of the most influential of Belgian artists. This book illustrates paintings and photographs, giving an account of major events and relationships, with lengthy quotations from letters and press articles.

Ensor was born in Ostend in 1860. His mother was Belgian and his father English. He met his future wife while on holiday in her native city. Ensor revered his father, whom he described as exceptionally intelligent, handsome and athletic. He had hoped to start a new life for the family in the USA but his foray across the Atlantic coincided with the Civil War and he had to return. It seems the set-back left him increasingly resentful of narrow materialism and limited intellectual scope of Ostend. More than a little of this attitude seems to have been adopted by his son. The family ran a gift, curio and seashell shop. The many masks in the shop and the apartment above provided Ensor with his most compelling subject, one that make him famous.

Ensor studied fine art in Brussels from 1877 to 1880. His art education in Ostend had been limited and traditional. At the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts he received more traditional training. He did not do well in examinations and tended to be placed in the middle or bottom of the class. One of his fellow students was Fernand Khnopff. Ensor worked alongside Willy Finch (1854-1930). They sometimes painted the same still-life side by side and they used similar styles; they painted each other’s portraits.

Ensor was disillusioned by the expectations of the academy and the opportunities for advanced art in Belgium in 1880. That year he left both the academy and the capital, to return to live with his parents in Ostend. Advanced art was synonymous with Impressionism and Realism. Ensor enthusiastically explored both avenues, relishing the use of paint that made clear its materiality. The Oyster-eater (1882) is a good example of Impressionist-inflected Realism.

His early paintings were marines, townscapes, still-lifes and interiors. They show careful observation and the adoption of a Realist palette, enlivened by attention to facture. Tricot has included seminal works by Ensor, stressing the paintings rather than the drawings or etchings. The book amounts to a biography of Ensor through his own words and art as Chronicle contains quotes from Ensor’s own writings, which were extensive. He wrote some articles and many letters, few of which are available in English translation. The reproductions are largely accurate and all the paintings are reproduced in colour.

Ensor’s paintings earned respect from critics and fellow artist when they were exhibited in numerous group exhibitions over the 1880s. He was building the reputation of being a leading painter, without there being anything unique about his paintings. His association with Les XX (the Belgian group of avant-gardists, operational 1883-1893) and La Libre Esthétique group (the successor group, 1893-1914) helped to spread knowledge of Ensor’s art. Despite this recognition, sales were slow and prices low.

In 1883 Ensor began painting his mask series in earnest. These paintings were of figures wearing carnival and theatrical masks – and the masks with figures – as well as skeletons, each interacting with each other and with figures who seem unaware of their presence. They were to prove Ensor’s greatest achievement. They destabilised the narrative of Realist art and took on aspects of caricature, satire and dream imagery. They extended gothic art and fantasy art. Ensor was playing with the boundaries between real and unreal, living and inanimate, high and low art, entering the territory that Symbolists were examining in the same period. What made Ensor different was his wit and the use of images and conventions found in satirical prints. The Symbolists were rather averse to humour, satire and social commentary, which can make their art rather self-important, grand and detached.

He started to overpaint his older pictures, adding masks which mock the oblivious subjects. Ensor’s mask paintings were not his sole output during this time. He was as likely to exhibit a still-life, view of Ostend or a religious drawing. Ensor’s religious paintings are almost all centred on Christ, interpreting the life of Christ through a personal fusion of Ensor’s own surroundings and the art he loved. They are highly idiosyncratic pieces and vary in tone from the devotional to satirical and the autobiographical. His spurt of originality lasted from around 1883 to 1900, when Ensor’s verve diminished rapidly. His love of Turner blunted his earthy palette. He reprised old subjects but never recaptured his fire. Ironically, it was after 1900 that artistic taste caught up with Ensor and collector interest increased substantially.  

Ensor participated in the 1901 Venice Biennale. A series of publications and exhibitions raised his profile. He was knighted in 1903. In 1904 he met art dealer François Franck and in 1910 the well-connected gallerist Herbert von Garvens-Garvensburg, both of whom bought and exhibited his art. Ensor ended up painting replicas of his old paintings to meet the demand of collectors but his new compositions were generally unremarkable. In 1925 Ensor was admitted to the Académie Royale. In 1929 a huge retrospective was held in Brussels, including 337 paintings, 325 drawings and 135 etchings. The same year he was awarded a barony.   

Tricot has uncovered new data about Ensor’s life from memoirs and Ensor’s own letters. It seems his father was brutally attacked in 1885 and was hospitalised, apparently mentally unstable, and died in 1887. Tricot reveals links between Ensor and a number of artists well-known and obscure. He quotes letters written to (and from) Ensor’s publishers and collectors. He discusses matters of price and provenance that allow us to understand Ensor’s attitude towards the disposal of his art. In particular, Tricot provides information about how Ensor attempted to place key pictures with certain museums. Although this is not a full biography, the inclusion of the artist’s words gives a vivid sense of his character and views. His sardonic humour, wild wit, self-pity and capriciousness emanate from his comments. Memoirs and letters of others tell us how he was seen. Tricot has corrected the dating of At the Conservatoire from 1902 to 1893, altering his position the publication of his 2009 catalogue raisonné.

Overall, this is a very useful guide to Ensor’s life and art, especially when read in conjunction with larger catalogues. Perhaps the only shortcoming is the absence of graphic work, which may be less familiar to readers but was a key aspect of Ensor’s oeuvre.

Xavier Tricot, James Ensor: Chronicle of His Life, 1860-1949, Mercatorfonds/Yale University Press (distr. Yale), 2020, paperback, 224pp, 200 col. and mono illus., £30, ISBN 978 0 300 25397 9

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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