The study of light was one of the central subjects in the artistic debate at the end of the 19th Century. James Ensor also obsessively analysed light and dark. These studies led to the realisation of his first sketches. Light and caricature are the two poles between which he continuously moved with his sketches.
In his landscapes and cityscapes he concentrated on a correct representation of the atmosphere. By contrast, in a number of other compositions he allowed fantasy and social critique to take centre stage.
Fueled by the analysis of the Great Masters and reading classical authors, Ensor created his rich imagination. Among others, The Infernal Cortege (1887) and Devils Thrashing Angels and Archangels (1888), are the prints that surprise by means of their caricature nature and through the explosive handling of the subject. Meanwhile, the political debates and social changes of his time did not leave Ensor unfased. With Belgium in the 19th Century (1889, copper etching, Ghent, Museum of Fine Arts) and Doctrinal Nourishment (1889, zinc etching, Ghent, Museum of Fine Arts) he did not hesitate to take a standpoint against the established order. Ensor produced the majority of his gravures, 88 of the 133, in a very brief period, from 1886 to 1891. He did this with the dry-point etching technique. The creative explosion of Ensor‘s engraving art that dominated until 1891 gradually ended. Afterwards, the print became merely a manner to give more notoriety to his other creations through the means of the multiplicity of the etching.