James Ensor, the modern Flemish master

Het James Ensorhuis ©Toerisme Oostende vzw - James Ensorhuis - Nick Decombel Fotografie

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.

Ensor - Self portrait with flower hat ©Mu.ZEE, www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders, foto Hugo Maertens

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.

Ostend, the James Ensor house - © Westtoer

Mask and death

The Ostend artist created an insane oeuvre, but he always refused to be pigeonholed. While this modern Flemish master had an irresistible urge to experiment, at the same time he often tended to stick to a number of fixed themes, that became recurring topics in his work. His canvases often feature masked characters, a nod to his childhood in the souvenir shop. The figure of death is another constant, as is his lurking aversion to the bourgeoisie and established values, despite the fact that he was created a baron in 1929.

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.

Ensor head

Oost, west, home is best

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.

The Ensor House, which is just a stone's throw from the North Sea beach, is a must-visit for fans of this modern master. This is where Ensor lived and worked during the last thirty years of his life. The house still honours his legacy today. But Ensor's house now also has a brand-new visitor centre, which highlights the master’s life and work. Themed rooms and temporary exhibitions shed light on various aspects of his life and work.

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.

Ostend was Ensor's first love, that much is clear, although he also had a soft spot for Brussels where he rekindled his artistic individuality. There he co-founded Les XX (Les Vingt), an innovative group of artists that brought a new dynamic to the art world. In the newly-opened Centre for Fine Arts (Bozar), he had his biggest and most important retrospective. Today you can still see some of his masterpieces in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels (KMSKB).

KMSKA De intrige JEnsor  ©KMSKA

The world's largest

Antwerp also has an impressive Ensor collection. In fact, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) is home to the world's largest collection of his works, comprising a whopping 38 paintings and countless sketches and drawings. Head to the Ensor rooms of this magnificent museum to admire masterpieces such as The Intrigue and The Skeleton Painter. Elsewhere in the city, the Plantin-Moretus Museum boasts a superb collection of 188 prints and 13 drawings by the master. You can also see a number of his works in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent and the nearby Museum Dhont-Dhaenens.

James Ensor's oeuvre may have conquered the world, but his roots run deep in Flanders. 

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