Political and Historical Themes

James Ensor was greatly interested in political current affairs. Very often he would openly take up a political and social viewpoint against the establishment. He treated his political involvement amongst others in crowd scenes in which the people, apart from their ‘universal' diversity, are depicted as a malignant and unreasonable force, spurred on by hysterics and hilarity. The print Belgium in the 19th Century is a striking illustration of the artist's self-willed commitment. The work alludes to the socialist manifestations for universal suffrage and reform of the educational system and the army. 

Ensor quite often used written text to strengthen his message by addressing the viewer directly, as we can also see for example in the Doctrinal Diet. This etching shows the king accompanied by the alleged rulers of the country: an officer, a politician, a bishop and the rector of a university. Totally disinterested, they are carrying on their backs or in their hands signs declaring the demands of the new social movement: personal military service, universal suffrage and compulsory education. They feed the people with their excrement, the residues of their political power. The sun, pictured in the top-left corner, was a standard symbol in anarchistic publications.

The satirical aspect is also typical for a number of James Ensor's etchings in which historical scenes have been fictitiously presented and large crowds at first orderly, end up in total chaos on the paper. His approach to this traditional theme is at odds with the idea of the historical piece as an exemplary, ethical drama. Scenes such as Roman Victory March and Battle of the Spurs have thus been stripped of heroic dramatics.