James Ensor, the modern Flemish master
A pioneer, an artistic great and a key figure in modern art history - there is only one James Ensor (1860–1949). The legacy of this modern master is spread across the whole world. However, there's nowhere better to learn about him than his home, Flanders.
James Sidney Edouard Ensor was born in Ostend in 1860 to a British father and a Belgian mother. He grew up in the souvenir shop run by his parents. The carnival masks that were sold in the shop fascinated the young Ensor and they would eventually become an essential part of his work. However, no one could have anticipated their significance when the young James started taking drawing classes at the age of fourteen. His talent was evident and so he continued to develop his skills at the Royal Academy for Fine Arts in Brussels. At the Academy, Ensor laid the foundations for an impressive career that would span almost 70 years and result in 850 paintings.
The artistic Ostender created an incredible work, yet he never limited himself to one genre. This modern Flemish master had an overwhelming drive to experiment. Ensor was seen as a pioneer of numerous styles, such as luminism, fauvism, cubism, expressionism, futurism and surrealism. Although this modern master loved to experiment, there were certain themes that ran through his oeuvre. For example, masked figures can often be seen in his paintings, which were a reference to his childhood in the souvenir shop. Representations of death are a common theme in his art, as is his latent disdain for the bourgeoisie and the establishment, though he himself would later become one of them, when in 1929 he was declared a baron.
This unique mix gave the world some unparalleled works that are currently exhibited in the world's most famous museums. His iconic and perhaps best-known painting, Christ's Entry Into Brussels (1888), hangs in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Other works of his can be admired in the Louvre and the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, the MoMA and the Guggenheim in New York, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Over 70 years after his death, Ensor is still travelling the world.
Yet for Ensor, there was no place like home. In his lifetime, he only left Ostend for a short period of time when he went to develop his talents at the art academy in Brussels. The rest of his days were spent against a backdrop of the calming sounds of the North Sea. So, where better to learn about him? It was in Ostend that he was born, painted his masterpieces and breathed his last breath.
An important exponent of his work is the James Ensor House, a stone's throw from the North Sea beach. He lived and worked in this house in the final 30 years of his life. Today, the museum is honouring this master. Ensor's house has been preserved in its authentic state and can be visited today. This unique piece of heritage has been upgraded with a brand-new visitor centre, which focuses on the master's life and work. Themed rooms and temporary exhibitions shine a spotlight on different aspects of the life and work of this artistic great. The art museum Mu.ZEE, just a 15 minute walk from the James Ensor House, provides more insight into Ensor's world with its permanent collection. Aside from these two highlights, there is plenty more to learn about Ensor and his Ostend, as you can discover here.
It is clear that Ostend was the love of Ensor’s life, although he also had a soft spot for Brussels where he found his artistic individuality. He was a founding member of Les XX (Les Vingt), an innovative group of artists that brought a new dynamism to the art world. In the then recently opened Palais des Beaux-Arts (now known as Bozar) he was given his largest and most important retrospective. Today, you can view some of his masterpieces in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels (KMSKB), and Antwerp also has an impressive Ensor offering. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp is exhibiting a few iconic works, and the Plantin-Moretus Museum has a beautiful collection of 188 prints and 13 drawings by the master. In the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent and the nearby Museum Dhont-Dhaenens you can see a number of his works.
James Ensor's oeuvre may have conquered the world, but his roots run deep in Flanders.
Story created on 11 May 2020