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James Ensor


In James Ensor’s (1860–1949) early landscapes the scenery in his native part of Belgium (the coast near Ostend) and the great space and light effects there provide the setting for impressive events. In later works his expressive and emotional approach prompted some disapproval among his contemporaries. Ensor was a major influence on 20th century Expressionists and Surrealists.

Ensor was born in Ostend, son of an English engineer and a Flemish shopkeeper. He studied at the Ostend Academy then attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels from 1877 to 1880, where he became a friend of Fernand Khnopff. Except for three brief trips to Paris, London and Holland Ensor spent his whole life in Ostend. In the 1880s he exhibited his work at the Antwerp and Paris Salons, and at L’Essor and Le Cercle Artistique exhibitions in Brussels. He was also a founding member of the Les XX group.

Ensor’s mature paintings are characterized by a deeply personal religious and political subject matter featuring bizarre masks, skeletons and fantastic allegories, rendered using an unusual technique of powerful brushwork and a bold, bright palette. His works were rejected as scandalous and he was the target of sharp criticism until the turn of the century, when he was acknowledged as a pioneer by both the next generation of artists and the Belgian state.