Mask Painter

about James Ensor

Populated with masks and skeletons, James Ensor’s macabre atmospheres are morbid commentaries on the human condition, his hometown of Ostend on the North Sea, Belgian history, and his own mortality. Human bones were regularly uncovered in Ostend well into the twentieth century, residue of the carnage there during early seventeenth-century warfare, and Ensor retained childhood memories of their exhumation. In 1888 he made a little etching of himself as a reclining skeleton in slippers, entitled My Portrait in 1960 —that is, at age one hundred.

Belonging to a group of closely related paintings from the late 1880s, the enigmatic Skeletons Warming Themselves is among the artist’s masterpieces. He has placed three dressed-up skeletons in the foreground around a stove on which is written “Pas de feu” and under it “en trouverez vous demain?” — “No fire. Will you find any tomorrow?”. The skeletons are accompanied by a palette and brush, a violin, and a lamp. Presumably James intended these items to symbolize art, music, and literature.

Born in Brussels, Belgium, in 1860, James left school early, at the age of fifteen, to live his passion for art. He attended Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels from 1877 to 1880. His work was first exhibited in 1881. At the end of the 19th century most of his paintings, particularly Christ’s entry into Brussels — 1889 —, were considered scandalous, preposterous and even insulting. Who knew that a young man painting in his parent’s attic would turn up to be an innovator of his period. He was instrumental in influencing Expressionist and Surrealists. Seems like the initiator always ends up being misunderstood, and rigid Victorian society certainly wasn’t prepared for James Ensor.

Even in the first decade of the 20th century, however, his production of new works was diminishing, and he increasingly concentrated on music — although he had no musical training —, he was a gifted improviser on the harmonium, and spent much time performing for visitors. Against the advice of friends, he remained in Ostend during World War II despite the risk of bombardment. In his old age he was an honored figure among Belgians, and his daily walk made him a familiar sight in Ostend. He died there after a short illness, on 19 November 1949.


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