'Ensor et Leman discutant peinture', an unrestrained confession by James Ensor in 1890

James Ensor, Ensor et Leman discutant peinture, 1890, oil on panel, 12 x 16 cm, signed and dated ENSOR 1890, Private collection Bart Versluys, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Ensor et Leman discutant peinture, 1890, oil on panel, 12 x 16 cm, signed and dated ENSOR 1890, Private collection Bart Versluys, © SABAM Belgium 2017.

‘Vive la Sociale' and ‘Vive Jesus roi de Bruxelles' are a few slogans that Ensor accentuates on his unique painting, L'entrée du Christ à Bruxelles (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles). Full of colours and touches, faces and masks, movement and rhythm, full of sound and fury, Ensor tells about the city life, Socialism and demonstrations, Christ and fanfares. This is his public manifesto about art and politics, on a canvas of exceptional proportion.

However, who is James Ensor at that moment? What is he thinking about and pondering upon; what makes him happy or angry? Ensor has left a few works from the years that are clarifying. It is one of the ‘confession paintings', a mysterious jewel from his intimate journal that is discussed here: Ensor et Leman discutant peinture.

Around the year 1890, when James Ensor seeks out entertainment in the taverns of Brussels and talks about art and women with Théo Hannon, Guillaume Vogels and other painters, the conversations are animated. When the local beer richly flowed, they talked about the tensions with Les XX and debate about light, Impressionism and painting techniques and maybe even secret loves. They are discussions that make or break friendships.

The ‘discussion' to which he refers in the title, between Gerard Leman (1851-1920) and James Ensor, is of another sort. Here, there are no jokes, nor subtle riddles. Ensor paints a personal story full of emotion and false bottoms. Despite the presence of a charming third person that appears to tone down the spectacle, it is no frivolous performance, but rather a raw confrontation. The painting suggests an irreconcilable clash of characters, ideas and viewpoints. The level of aggression suggests a lingering conflict, a sort of climax to an overdue, pent-up feud.

The dramatic aspect stands in contrast with the misleading title that rather recalls the atmosphere of the polite etiquette of a salon than that of a duel. That contrast between title and image confirms how Ensor upends or manipulates reality.

Attributes and symbols 

The composition shows three figures, each painted at bust level. While the protagonists look at each other in the white of the eyes and nearly literally cross swords, the facial expression and the attributes indicate a hostile story.

Ensor paints his story in a clenched and assertive manner. He chooses attributes and symbols that are to be explained both individually and culturally. They symbolise the two different worlds of the soldier and the artist. Leman is dressed in the black uniform with golden epaulettes. He stands for military discipline, authority and ordinance. The compass and arc on his head point to his mathematical knowledge and can also be read as a reference to the Freemason's symbol ‘square and compasses'. Gerard Leman was a lodge brother with the Brussels branch les Amis Philantropiques, where he met the beau monde of Brussels. In the lodge, numerous artists, architects such as Horta and members of the Université Libre de Bruxelles congregate, amongst which was Ernest Rousseau (1).

It is no fine and nuanced exchange of words, no formal point and counterpoint. Leman wishes to settle the ‘discussion about painting' with a cannon. Ensor ridicules the lauded Leman by depicting the officer with a small toy cannon, by which he neutralises the bombardment with a single finger.

Against this, Ensor can only place the creativity of the artist. He does not wear the plumeau of one or another military headwear, but the feathers of a Native American on the warpath. Ensor is clothed in non-specific attire and in fact is coloured in the pure red colour of his palette. The colour symbolism is clear and emphasises his attacking demeanour. His physiognomy is aggressive: nose, beard, thumb and index finger sharply prominent. He can only defend with a paintbrush and perhaps shall only be able to use his palette as a shield if necessary. Despite these innocent attributes, Ensor pushes his adversary to retreat with his paintbrush using it as a weapon. Leman is driven to the defence, he shoots, but it is Ensor who comes across as the most aggressive. He finds himself in attack mode.

Ensor et Leman discutant peinture?

But why is Ensor so infuriated with Leman? Is it because Ensor is reproached that his art is just as threadbare as his brush? The psychoanalyst Herman Piron (1968) sees in such a decrepit brush a sign of the waning creativity and even diminishing virility of the artist. Indeed, two years later in 1892, with La Vierge consolatrice (1892, CR 354) (1968:122), Ensor paints a self-portrait with a ‘hanging and worn-out brush'. (2) In that painting, the Madonna has the face of Mariette, and Ernest Rousseau observes, his portrait sculpted in the upper-right capital. I find it exaggerated to conclude from this ‘phallic and hanging paintbrush' that his virility is waning. I suspect that it is no unconscious choice, but rather a conscious one to depict himself in such a way. The choice could have come to him by a combination of his crude humour and his life's story. It is, moreover, halfway through the 1890's that Augusta Boogaerts (1870-1951) plays a greater and greater role in Ensor's life, and perhaps that Madonna painting, in which he kneels down so submissively and a clear (colour)line runs between Mariette and himself, can be seen as a sort of farewell, in which he resigns himself to the inaccessibility and unattainability of Mariette. Later as well, he keeps contact with the Rousseau family and shall even etch the menu for the wedding of Ernest junior in 1896.

Nonetheless, in 1890 this premise of ‘waning virility' cannot easily be confirmed; on the contrary, Ensor refutes this with a powerful counter symbol. Diane Lesko (1985:36) identifies a phallic symbol in the red form on his palette. Above this phallus he paints the names of the two protagonists: Leman-Ensor. The mantle of Ensor is rather a cape, which drapes unnaturally and along with the arc of the palette forms the upper part of a heart. Ensor here speaks of love and eroticism.

James Ensor, Ensor et Leman discutant peinture (detail), Private collection Bart Versluys, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Ensor et Leman discutant peinture (detail), Private collection Bart Versluys, © SABAM Belgium 2017.

Between these difficult to reconcile opponents stands the smiling Mariette Rousseau. She is neither a participant, nor onlooker. She gives neither of the two a glance, but rather looks at us. It is this contradiction, war against peace, which elicits a sort of alienation as well as a sense of perspective. Despite the obvious fight, at first glance the reason is unclear and even out of proportion. That secret brings tension into this riddle. Mariette's entire posture is ambiguous. On the one hand, she stands closest to Ensor, who blocks the way to Leman with his brush. On the other hand, she nods her head towards Leman. Is she ‘the art of painting' from the title, or is Mariette more than only a muse such as the symbolism of the palette and heart suggest? Could she be the subject of the fight? Can the intersections in the biography of Ensor and Mariette Hannon-Rousseau provide explanation?

Ensor and the Rousseau-Hannon Family 

When the seventeen year-old Ensor leaves for the academy of Brussels, he lands in a new world: from a small fishing port to a metropolis; from a small bourgeois family to a leftist intellectual milieu. One of the painters that he meets in Brussels is Théo Hannon (1851-1915). Théo also introduces Ensor to the family of his sister Mariette Hannon (1850-1926) and her husband Ernest Rousseau (1831-1905). Rousseau married Mariette in 1871, the year that she became an adult, and he is nearly 20 years older. The following year their only son was born: Ernest junior (born 1872). It works out well for Ensor, and together they experience antics and costume parties. (3)

Ernest Rousseau senior enjoys a rich academic career. In 1853, he becomes a private tutor in the Royal military academy in Brussels and from 1861 until 1883, he gives lessons there as a professor. Gerard Leman is a private tutor at the time. He combines this function with his experimental Physics lessons at the university. In 1884, he is chosen as Rector of the Université Libre de Bruxelles. In the salons of the Rousseau-Hannon family, there is a coming and going of professors, politicians, writers and artists and even Anarchists such as the Reclus brothers.

The Rousseau family supports Ensor from the start. He is not only a frequent visitor, welcome at dinners and family parties, but they also support him financially by buying numerous paintings in the beginning. In total, there are 19, dated between 1880 and 1896. It is to these patrons that Ensor regularly turns to for loans. (4) Naturally, the Rousseau family then also appear in his oeuvre. (5)

James Ensor, Portrait d'Ernest Rousseau, ca. 1884, black chalk on paper, private collection, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Portrait d'Ernest Rousseau, ca. 1884, black chalk on paper, private collection, © SABAM Belgium 2017.

He makes portraits of Ernest Rousseau as well as Mariette Hannon in etchings and drawing. While the portrait of Ernest is more of an official portrait (1887 T.11), he shall make various sensitive drawings of Mariette, which depict her, for example, during her studies with the microscope (1889).

James Ensor, Mariette Rousseau au microscope, 1889, black chalk and pencil on panel, 24,5x18,8 cm, private collection, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Mariette Rousseau au microscope, 1889, black chalk and pencil on panel, 24,5x18,8 cm, private collection, © SABAM Belgium 2017.

The desirable Mariette

How was Ensor's emotional life when he was 30 years old? This is difficult to estimate. In an interview from 1934, Ma vie en abrégée (1974:207), he positions his libidinous period between two milestones in his life: 1888-89, in which he paints the L'Entrée du Christ à Bruxelles, and 1905, when he meets François Franck, his Antwerp patron: At the time (...) the carnal spirit of the woman subjugates me for a moment. Ah! Women their mask of flesh, of the living flesh becoming the fine mask of paper... This psychological meaning is confirmed by his oeuvre. Around these years, for the first time, he shall express the theme of the man who is challenged by the temptations of life. This man can be either Saint Anthony (1887) or Christ (The Temptation of Christ, 1888).

In 1888, he begins his well-known series The Seven Deadly Sins with Lust and the six others following only in 1902 and 1904. Is lust the most interesting deadly sin to begin with? All of these works are a medium to make erotic allusions within a Christian, and thus tolerated, context. The erotic is then also explicitly present. In his profane work, this is mostly veiled and rather suggestive. In the years 1886 to 1890, he draws over a number of earlier drawings (see cat. Knoedler 1983). The new figures that he adds are monsters and devils as well as women with exposed backsides or large bosoms and phallic-shaped dogs. Often they are hidden in a commotion of lines and shadows. Ensor gave or sold such drawings to Mariette, and these remained in her collection until her death.

James Ensor, La Puce, 1884-1888, black chalk and pencil on paper, 22,6x16,8 cm, private collection, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, La Puce, 1884-1888, black chalk and pencil on paper, 22,6x16,8 cm, private collection, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
When Ensor shows such works to his visitors, Verhaeren notes drily: No commentary accompanied their presentation. Only a feeble laugh, when the subject astonished and insulted the taste of minds too puritan.

Ensor also makes an alluding double portrait in the etching Insectes singuliers (1888 T. 46). In it, Mariette is a gracious dragonfly, who looks at James-the-beetle. (6) Blanche Rousseau explains the source of inspiration and also the false bottom in her memories that she brings up in La Plume (1899) in Ensor intime. He refers to the verses of Heinrich Heine:

Les Caprices des Amoureux
Une scarabée se tenait sur une haie, triste et pensif
il est devenu amoureux d'une mouche:
'O mouche de mon âme! sois l'épouse de mon choix.
Epouse-moi, ne rejette pas mon amour, j'ai un ventre d'or

James Ensor, Insectes singuliers, 1888, dry needle, 114 x 154 mm, private collection P. Florizoone, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Insectes singuliers, 1888, dry needle, 114 x 154 mm, private collection P. Florizoone, © SABAM Belgium 2017.

Such veiled allusions, that make his affectionate ‘friendship' for Mariette clear, one can also see in L'appel de la sirène (1891/93 CR 344). However, the allusions become more lascivious in The Baths of Ostend (1890 CR 322), where he places Mariette in an indeed very special environment and entourage. Like the devil in the ear of Anthony whispering fantasies of earthly delight, so sees Ensor in The Baths of Ostend before him a seascape: effet de chair. His lust and desire are concentrated on one quarter of the panel. He doesn't wish to turn away, but to fully enjoy it. Installed on the roof a bath cabin and peering through a telescope, he scans all of the bodies. In this bath scene, he lives out his sexual fantasies. With a bit of exaggeration, we could call this Ensor's painted Kama Sutra. He applies Bruegel's system, which brings together the folk games or sayings into a sort of riddle paintings. Here, it deals with the erotic allusions that are frequent and pertinent, yet seldom made explicit. In short, Ensor insinuates a brothel and places the woman whom he is in love with in it, admittedly with her back turned and looking at Ensor. Are all of the risqué activities that Ensor has taking place behind her back fantasies?

On her right shoulder four small arches suggest that the man who is gazing at her penetratingly has his hand wrapped around her shoulder. The man is Ensor and he depicts Mariette next to his signature and beneath copulating dogs... This drawing should in all ways be something for the psychoanalysts to chew on. That doctor Piron (1968) gave no attention to this, just shows how well Ensor can keep the real content of his work hidden. (Florizoone 1996)

James Ensor, Les bains à Ostende (detail), 1890, pencil on panel, 37,5 x 45,5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Les bains à Ostende (detail), 1890, pencil on panel, 37,5 x 45,5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, © SABAM Belgium 2017.

Whether the love for Mariette was merely Platonic, or also consummated, is unknown. However, that Ensor yet assumes a sometimes dubious, not always tolerated, place with the Rousseau family, appears from the anecdote by which Blanche Rousseau concludes her article in La Plume: I have in front of me a photograph of Ensor. It is with a group of the family. Someone has blacked out the figure, but I have successfully removed the stain, and it appears mockingly to me, completely white, strange amongst us, different, as if from another world.

Ensor expressed the problematic situation himself with an etching even in 1888, two years before the painting, Petites figures bizarres (T. 53), in which the family of Mariette was depicted. Now, her husband Ernest Rousseau is the beetle and she, just as her son Ernest junior, is a butterfly. Ensor is led away by a devil from this familial happiness.

Could the figure of Leman in Ensor et Leman discutant peinture have had the same function as the devil in the etching and has the heated discussion over art in fact received a completely different, very personal turn? Or, could Leman himself fancy his peer Mariette and in this manner become a rival for Ensor, that explains the names of both men above the phallus?

When Ensor departed for Brussels and met Mariette, he was a young man of seventeen. In 1890, he is a thirty year-old man, Mariette is forty, Leman thirty-nine and Ernest nearly sixty years old.

James Ensor, Petites figures bizarres,1880, etching, 131 x 94 mm, private collection P. Florizoone, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Petites figures bizarres,1880, etching, 131 x 94 mm, private collection P. Florizoone, © SABAM Belgium 2017.

Five self-portraits on panel 

Meanwhile, there is much that happened in Ensor's painting career. The years before and after 1890 form a crucial period of his life. His work undergoes a fundamental evolution of content. From the peaceful landscapes and closed interiors, he evolves towards masks and satire. A variety of his works take on clearly more aggressive themes and titles and Death appears.

The figure of Christ comes pertinently to the foreground in the years 1885-1886. It is significant when he identifies himself with the crucified Christ beginning in 1886. When George Seurat is invited in 1887 to exhibit with the art circle Les XX, Ensor's authority and leadership spot is put into question. Ensor is one of the earliest Belgian Impressionists and for his entire life he shall remain driven to assume the pioneering role. However, when around 1887-88, various artists switch over to take up the technique of Pointillism, he took their choice for this new technique as a personal affront. His friend Willy Finch applies this technique, Van Rysselberghe is won over by it and Octave Maus becomes the great promoter of the foreign Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. What shall also affect him emotionally is that the person who is most dear to him, his father, dies in 1887 and shall no longer be able to support him. After 1889-1890, Ensor's humour becomes more biting and he paints his satirical works in contrasting colours and simplified planes and no longer with impressionistic touches. (7)

His discussions about art also become less subtle. Where in 1884 he still writes humorous, ironic text about his education at the academy, in 1895 and 1896, he writes very brusquely and nearly insultingly in le Coq Rouge about ‘le Prix de Rome' and ‘the Stevens brothers', who even challenge him to a duel about it. All of these changes and evolutions, Christ, Death, his more aggressive manner of painting, sarcasm and caricature and confrontational themes we can see in exceptional proportion coming together in 1889 in the L'Entrée du Christ à Bruxelles.

James Ensor, L'Entrée du Christ à Bruxelles, 1888-1889, oil on canvas,  252 x 430 cm,  J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, L'Entrée du Christ à Bruxelles, 1888-1889, oil on canvas, 252 x 430 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, © SABAM Belgium 2017.

Shortly after he finished this public exclamation in record size in 1889, he shall paint in small format (ca. 12 x 16 cm), nearly in secrecy, his personal vulnerability. It deals with five staggering self-portraits: the four earliest are equally aggressive, full of bitter humour and biographical. The last one from 1892 is milder. The psychological self-portraits have an importance that is not to be overestimated. They tell, in an intensive way about his emotional life; provide a unique insight into his soul and thereby they give us explanations for a number of crucial works and symbols. In all four, he shows himself attacked, hurt and humiliated.

James Ensor, Ecce Homo (Le Christ et les critiques), 1891, oil on panel, 12 x 16 cm, private collection, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Ecce Homo (Le Christ et les critiques), 1891, oil on panel, 12 x 16 cm, private collection, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Squelettes se disputant un hareng saur, 1891, oil on panel, 16 x 21 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Squelettes se disputant un hareng saur, 1891, oil on panel, 16 x 21 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, L'Homme de douleur, 1891, oil on panel, 22 x 16 cm, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, L'Homme de douleur, 1891, oil on panel, 22 x 16 cm, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, © SABAM Belgium 2017.

-In the first self-portrait from the series Ensor et Leman discutant peinture, he defends himself still and shows an exceptional intensity.

-In Ecce Homo (or, Le Christ aux critiques 1891 CR 330 12 x 16), he feels misunderstood by the attacks of the art critics and becomes like a Christ with the crown of thorns with a noose and forlorn and discouraged facial expression led away by two reactionary art critics.

-In Squelettes se disputant un hareng saur (1891 CR 335 16 x 21 cm), his art, his soul becomes torn to pieces. He chooses such a smoked herring or ‘hareng saur' (phonetically l'art-ensor) as his alter ego, a symbol of his art.

-In L'homme de douleur (1891 CR 331 22 x16), he is defeated and he bears the immense sufferings of a Christ figure. His expression is one of complete misery, nearly inhumanly distorted. Each time these small paintings are a metaphor for his disquietude and inner struggle with each being one aspect from his direct environment, which concerned him emotionally. Ensor with the woman and his feelings of love; amongst the critics, Ensor and his art.

Each time again it deals with a painful situation. He can only come to one conclusion: he sees himself as a pioneer, as forging-ahead artist. He identifies himself with Christ, who just like he, shows the way.

The four paintings show in an explicit way how he felt at that moment: isolated, misunderstood and attacked. Where the title of Ensor et Leman discutant peinture still suggests a discussion about art, though it exposes primarily his emotionally loneliness and shows the unattainability of his muse while he fights for his unaccepted feelings, he shows himself in another portrait no longer as a beetle in love, but as a dried-out herring. The four small panels form a sort of intimate psychological journal in which Ensor expresses his injuries in a magisterial manner. Despite the simplicity and directness of the compositions, they have a rich layering, full of emotion, which does not leave the viewer unmoved.

The absent presence 

There is still a fifth little painting in the series of self-portraits: Monsieur et madame Rousseau parlant avec Sophie Yoteko (CR 355 1892 12 x 16 cm). It is an intriguing little painting whereby according to the title, 2 women and 1 man are present, however, Ensor paints 2 men and 1 woman. Ernest Rousseau looks at both ‘women', the left ‘woman' is Ensor himself in women's clothing. He thus takes the place of Sophie Yoteko. Here, he shows himself as a transvestite and shares loving glances and flowers in dove form with the other, madame Rousseau or Mariette Hannon. Ensor takes on a disguise in order to dupe Ernest. (see Florizoone in Schirn Kunsthalle 2005:222)

At the end of the 19th century, mummeries and masquerades were common not only during carnival. Ensor repainted various paintings in which he, sometimes along with the Rousseau family, depicts burlesque scenes. However, again the title does not fulfil its charge. Such veiling or concealing, formally or by content, is a trademark of Ensor. The myth that he creates around himself and the ‘innacuracies' in interviews and text are known. He also has manipulated his work by painting over various paintings many years later and sometimes providing a new content. This travesty, according a conception of prof. De Maeyer, is an important fact.

He not only causes confusion with the Yoteko painting, but also with Ensor et Leman discutant peinture. In a copy drawing he goes still further with altering the content.

James Ensor, Mr. et Madame Rousseau parlant avec Sophie Yoteko, 1892, oil on panel, 12 x 16 cm, private collection, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Mr. et Madame Rousseau parlant avec Sophie Yoteko, 1892, oil on panel, 12 x 16 cm, private collection, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Ensor et Leman discutant peinture, s.d., coloured pencil on paper, 12 x 17,5 cm, Mu.ZEE, Ostend, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Ensor et Leman discutant peinture, s.d., coloured pencil on paper, 12 x 17,5 cm, Mu.ZEE, Ostend, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Le général Leman et Ensor discutant peinture, s.d, pencil on paper, 12 x 14,5 cm, collection unknown, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Le général Leman et Ensor discutant peinture, s.d, pencil on paper, 12 x 14,5 cm, collection unknown, © SABAM Belgium 2017.

Ensor made 2 drawings and 1 copy in oil. The drawing in the collection of the Flemish Community (depot Mu.ZEE Ostend) and the painting are literally copies in colour. The other drawing in pencil shows a few peculiarities:

-The most striking is that the space where Mariette is depicted in the painting is empty in the drawing. She is, as it were, silenced.

-The annotated title now also contains ‘général' Leman, but he is on 26 June 1912 just promoted to lieutenant general. Probably the black-white drawing dates prior to this.

-The drawing has large margins and these appear to be folded many times, by which the seams are worn out. Such ‘enveloppes' Ensor has systematically used around his etching plates. These ‘enveloppes' have an etching impression, sometimes coloured in, by which he folds the margins and so wraps the etching plate in order to protect the metal.

May we conclude from these particularities that he wrapped the small panel Ensor et Leman discutant peinture in this drawing and that Mariette better not be in view in this discussion?

That strengthens the interpretation that this panel does not deal so much with ‘the art of painting', but contains a personal and intimate secret for which Mariette is the key for deciphering.

Not only does he make copies of his work, drawings, paintings, etchings or fragments of them regularly show up in other paintings. These paintings in which he refers to his own work are true art-chamber paintings. In Ma chambre préférée from 1892, he paints the room that was his favourite to spend time in. The title suggests that all that is in there is dear to him: the paintings on the walls and the piano as a symbol for his music. The largest painting is a portrait of himself by Isidore Verheyden, and a number of small paintings from shortly after 1890, amongst which Ecce Homo and Squelettes se disputant un Hareng Saur. These two are also present in the other art chamber, Squelette peintre (1896), but each time Ensor et Leman discutant peinture and Monsieur et madame Rousseau parlant avec Sophie Yoteko are missing. Both are apparently not accessible for publication.

Just around 1930, Ensor et Leman discutant peinture shall constitute a part of a composition, namely in the portrait that he paints of Augusta Boogaerts: Portrait d'Augusta Boogaerts assise (CR 606). It is an intimate portrait in which Ensor muses over the deceased people from his life: his mother (1915), Gerard Leman (1920), Mariette Rousseau (1926) and Ernest Rousseau (1905). The painting was probably painted shortly after the death of Mariette in 1926. Such as with Monsieur et madame Rousseau parlant avec Sophie Yoteko, there is a figure that is ‘present/absent', namely himself. Here there is no disguising, but for the head of Augusta Boogaerts that comes in place of his portrait in the painting.

Augusta shall become his new love during the 1890's. However, also with her will he not live together, and she will also not live in Ostend, but in Brussels. Ensor and the women, the love, affection and eroticism remain a puzzling subject.

James Ensor, Portrait d'Augusta Boogaerts assise,  ca. 1930, oil on canvas, 44 x 34 cm, private collection, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Portrait d'Augusta Boogaerts assise, ca. 1930, oil on canvas, 44 x 34 cm, private collection, © SABAM Belgium 2017.

Style and composition 

It is interesting to see how Ensor handles the same compositional schemes in various works. Here is the scheme with a calm, central figure in bust, depicted frontally, that is flanked by two or more figures in profile. The active participants are much less neutral, certainly on the emotional level. (8)

James Ensor, Icône - Portrait d'Eugène Demolder (detail), 1893, oil on panel, 36 x 21 cm,  Groeninge Museum, Bruges, © SABAM Belgium 2017.
James Ensor, Icône - Portrait d'Eugène Demolder (detail), 1893, oil on panel, 36 x 21 cm, Groeninge Museum, Bruges, © SABAM Belgium 2017.

With Ensor et Leman discutant peinture, the calm opposite to the action is intriguing, but it is primarily the peculiar combination of sharp Realism, undetermined space and curious attributes (compass on the head, brush, toy cannon) that makes it a surprising painting and piques the curiosity.

This love story does not play out at all in the décor and stage-like space of his numerous jardin d'amour paintings. Here, there is no interior, nor exterior, the background is a screen without perspective or topographical reference. The painting is a projection of his inner state.

Ensor paints here in a style that teases the academic rules: perspective, volume, shadow and even the elementary reality (compass on the head) deviate from the conventional artistic system. Again, the attributes are what play a crucial role. They determine to a point the perception that the painting has caricature characteristics, primarily the miniature cannon catches the attention.

Ensor's mother sold in her shop during the summer humorous prints from, among others, Cham, Canelle and Mars. Souvenir des bains d'Ostende (ca. 1860) and Types de l'armée belge (ca. 1865) are popular with the Ostend tourists. They were signed by Dubar or his son, who signed them with the anagram Braud. Edouard Dubar senior (1803-1879) was Ensor's first teacher that introduced him to art. (9) In the binder, Types de l'armée belge (1865), the Belgian army is mocked, and in the coloured-in lithograph Artillerie, such miniature cannons raise quite some animosity with the soldiers. Ensor takes this over with the same mocking intention. It is the attributes in the painting that heighten the sharp Realism up to an ironic Realism.

Braud, Artillerie, lithograph in Types de l'armée belge en 1865, private collection P. Florizoone.
Braud, Artillerie, lithograph in Types de l'armée belge en 1865, private collection P. Florizoone.

Although the clothing of Mariette diffusely blows open on the lower left, all of the other forms in the painting are painted clearly defined and in cloisonné. The painting is stylistically quite simplified, but the portraits recognisable and are so subtly painted that the emotions remain. Through this uniform space all attention goes to the persons, their meaning and feelings. The style and the aesthetics of the panel are very direct and both caricature and realistic. Ensor et Leman discutant peinture was most likely highly offensive in 1890.

Conclusion 

In Ensor et Leman discutant peinture, Ensor uses no masks in order to suggest the reality, to obscure or to affirm, but he shows a sharp reality with false bottom, a vérité caché. Its title deceives us and throws us off. With peinture, he is going for his muse, personified by Mariette. Yet, he does not depict Mariette allegorically, because it actually does not deal with a muse, but with lust, jealousy and bruised honour. The years around 1890 are difficult years for Ensor, both on the personal and professional level.

His suffering and misunderstanding in connection with his art, such as in the 3 other self-portraits show him well. Ecce Homo, L'homme de douleur and Squelettes se disputant un hareng saur were all three portrayed in La Plume (1899), but as for his personal emotional life, he closes it off.

The confusing title, the drawing without Mariette, the ‘enveloppe', the late date of appearance and the puzzling content are all elements that demonstrate that it is a very personal and private work.

The two paintings with a mysterious title and a hidden message of love are made public after many decades. Monsieur et madame Rousseau parlant avec Sofie Yoteko are exhibited for the first time in 1945 and are mentioned in the literature (Fels). Ensor et Leman discutant peinture also remain under the radar for a long while. It shall only be exhibited 30 years of dating, in 1920, for the first time and only in 1922 (Le Roy) mentioned in the literature.

This reticence is remarkable in comparison with the suggestive etching Insectes singuliers (1888) and Baths of Ostend (1899), which were indeed already dealt with in their year of production and probably also exhibited. What is the difference in content? The unknown affective aggression? Does Ensor expose himself too much and uncontrolled?

To me, there is still one such situation known in which Ensor looks deeply into his heart and consequently wants to avoid any publication. On 13 September 1908, he writes a dramatic letter to Emma Lambotte about the family drama that also knocks him out of balance. Alex, the daughter of his sister, shall marry the 24 year-old Richard Daveluy at the age of fifteen, and they run away together with her mother. They are all three unreachable and demand a sum of money from Ensor's mother. Ensor has always provided well for his sister and niece, and in the letter you feel then also a feeling of failing, powerlessness and ingratitude as well as a great concern for his mother. Apparently Ensor complains that he had sent such an intimate letter and that this is no longer under his control; thus he asks Emma to quickly send this letter back and requests that she comply. (Derrey-Capon 1999, pp. 181-183)

The self-portrait is a favourite theme with Ensor. Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque has documented more than 100 of them (1976): James as a youth in 1877 until an old man of 81. As an artist with narcissistic character traits, he frequently investigates his reflection in the mirror and depicts himself nearly always frontal or in three-quarter view. He shows himself in various emotional conditions: fearful, full of self-confidence, smiling, doubting and so forth. Nearly always he is a passive observer of himself.

Particularly we seldom see him in action. (10) This emphatic self-portrait in profile, the charge and the anger in Ensor et Leman discutant peinture are unique in Ensor's oeuvre. He is fiercely involved with the matter. It is the only painting in which Ensor fights for a woman. Around 1890, Ensor slightly lifts the veil. It is a rare occasion that he shows his true feelings so unrestrained, before and after this, he shall never paint so personally and intimately.

Footnotes

(1) Draguet 1999:57 and D. Hanser 1997:11.
(2) For the analysis of the brush in his oeuvre, see L.M.A. Schoonbaert 1973 p. 330 ff. in Jaarboek 1973 Royal Museum for Fine Arts Antwerp.
(3) For at least one year, Ernest Rousseau senior was guardian of Mariette, Theo and Edouard Hannon, the children of his colleague-Professor Joseph-Désiré Hannon (1822-1870). Mariette inherited the interest for plants and insects from her father, professor of Zoology and Botany at the ULB from 1849 until 1870, and shall - although she never followed an academic training - write various publications on Mycology.
(4) Her brother Edouard Hannon is also a collector of Ensor's work.
(5) In 1882, the Rousseau's move to their newly built home in the Vautierstraat in Brussels and in 1884 and 1885, Ensor paints their interior and garden (CR 267, 275). He makes etchings of their ‘meuble hanté' (1888 T22) and the ‘bust' (1887 T 18) that stood on the chimney.
(6) In the first state of the etching Mariette is still a fly, such as in the poem by Heine. From the second state of the etching on, Ensor etches the dragonfly tail on. In the following states, in addition to Ensor the beetle, there comes along yet a small beetle and a person looks out from the tower, whom some researchers identify as Ernest junior and senior.
(7) 1890 CR 309 L'assassinat, 1891 CR 345 Les bon juges, 1892 CR 346 Les mauvais médecins, 1892 CR 348 Les gendarmes, 1896 CR 381 Les cuisiniers dangereux
(8) Examples of this are Old woman with masks (1889 CR 292) Monsieur et madame Rousseau parlant avec Sophie Yoteko (1892 cr. 342), the lowermost portion of Portrait d'Eugène Demolder (1893 cr. 353), Le juge rouge (1900 cr. 380) and so forth.
(9) Patrick Vandenabeele, 1996, pp. 134-141.
(10 For example, also in drawing and etching Fridolin and Gragapanca d'Yperdamme (1895).

Bibliography 

- DERREY-CAPON DANIELLE, James Ensor, Lettres à Emma Lambotte, Centre international pour l'Etude du XIX° siècle, La Renaissance du Livre, Bruxelles 1999
- DRAGUET MICHEL, James Ensor ou la fantasmagorie, Gallimard, 1999.
- ENSOR JAMES, Ecrits, Liège 1974.
- FLORIZOONE PATRICK, De baden van Oostende, Pandora, 1996.
- FLORIZOONE PATRICK in Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, James Ensor, 2005.
- KNOEDLER, James Ensor, Zürich 12/2/ - 19/3/1983.
- OLLINGER-ZINQUE GISELE, Ensor een zelfportret, Laconti Brussels 1976.
- PIRON HERMAN, James Ensor, een psychoanalytische studie, Antwerp 1968.
- LESKO DIANE, James Ensor. The creative years, Princeton 1985.
- ROUSEAU BLANCHE, Ensor Intime in 'La Plume', Paris 1899.
- (T.) TAEVERNIER AUGUSTE, James Ensor, cat. illustré des ses gravures, leur description critique et l'inventaire des plaques, Ghent 1973.
- (CR.) TRICOT XAVIER, James Ensor. Leven en werk. Oeuvrecatalogus van de schilderijen, Brussels, Mercatorfonds, 2009.
- VERHAEREN EMILE, James Ensor, Brussels 1908.
- VANDENABEELE PATRICK, in Florizoone Patrick De baden van Oostende, Pandora, 1996.

Patrick Florizoone