This archived website ‘James Ensor. An online museum.’ is temporarily not being updated. Certain functionality (e.g. specific searches in the collection) may no longer be available. News updates about James Ensor will appear on Questions about this website? Please contact us at

James Ensor and the Old Masters

For his numerous religious, satirical and (pseudo-)historical themes, Ensor not only found inspiration in the Bible, historical writings, erudite reference works or popular educational periodicals, but likewise in folk art and in the work of old Masters from various time periods.
What makes Ensor's works so unique is that he knew how to re-interpret at a highly personal level. The originality of Ensor appears in his inimitable manner of uniting tradition and modernity, both thematically and stylistically. Although Ensor is correctly viewed as a forerunner of modern art, he drew inspiration from the works of the old Masters like no other.

Rembrandt van Rijn

Since the time of his academic years (1877-1880), James Ensor showed an unwavering interest for the Old Masters. In his copious letters and speeches, he repeatedly cited world-renowned Flemish painters such as Brueghel and Rubens, though also Rembrandt, Goya, Turner and Watteau, among others. (1) During the first half of 1880, Ensor copied numerous works in East-Indian ink, charcoal or conté pencil of the most emergent artists that were portrayed in the leading periodicals of his time. (2) Amongst the many copies that he made between 1883 and 1885 are numerous works after Rembrandt. (3) The influence of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) on the work of Ensor can scarcely be underestimated. The chiaroscuro in his series, The Aureoles of Christ, or the Sensibility of Light from 1885-86, is indebted to the Dutch Master. (4)

Ensor's drawing The Mystical Death of A Divine (KMSKA, Antwerp) from 1880 (probably modified around 1888-90) also reveals the influence of Rembrandt. (5) The dark, central portion, most likely executed at the Royal Academy for Fine Arts in Brussels, depicts a group of believers and choir children, assembled around a clergyman, who with raised arms appears to call the group to action. Ensor later added elements that were inspired by the oil painting, The Plague in Doornik in 1092 (1882; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tournai), by the Belgian history painter Louis Gallait (1810-1887). More specifically, it has to do with a procession led by a bishop who brings an image of a saint into the church. We also make note that Ensor was inspired by another work by Louis Gallait. In 1892, Ensor painted The Gendarmes (Tr. 348)*, a satirical work that criticises the bloody repression of the fishermen's uprising of 1887 in Ostend. The composition is partially inspired by the work of Gallait from about 1851: The Last Honours to Counts Egmont and Hoorn (various versions are in the possession of the KMSKA, Antwerp; Stadhuis, Zottegem and Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tournai). (6)

The young girl in Ensor's The Mystical Death of A Divine looks like a free copy of the girl with the golden dress in Rembrandt's The Nightwatch (1632-1642, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Not only was Ensor inspired by Rembrandt's chiaroscuro, but he also borrowed elements from his oeuvre. The composition of the etching, Christ Mocked (T. 1)** from 1886 is clearly inspired by Rembrandt's etching Christ before Pilate (Bartsch 77) from 1636. Ensor's etching The Hunter
(T. 32) is then again a free copy after Rembrandt's etching, Landscape with shepherd and hound (Bartsch 211), from 1653.

In 1882, the young Ensor wrote a short text entitled, Réflexions sur l'art, in which he explained in a nutshell the role and the evolution of the painter's view in the art of painting. Herein he indicated the highest importance as being that the artist understands the true nature of light. Only with a good understanding and correct analysis of the light is the true artist capable of creating a work of art:

La vision se modifie en observant. La première vision, celle du vulgaire, c'est la ligne simple, sèche, sans recherche de couleur. La seconde période, c'est celle où l'oeil plus exercé discerne les valeurs des tons et leurs délicatesses; celle-ci est déj  moins comprise du vulgaire. La dernière est celle où l'artiste voit les subtilités et les jeux multiples de la lumière, ses plans, ses gravitations. Ces recherches progressives modifient la vision primitive et la ligne souffre et devient secondaire. Cette vision sera peu comprise. Elle demande une longue observation, une étude attentive. Le vulgaire ne discernera que désordre, chaos, incorrection. Et ainsi l'art a évolué depuis la ligne du gothique   travers la couleur et le mouvement de la Renaissance, pour arriver   la lumière moderne. (7)

William Turner

James Ensor is also fascinated by the original light effects in the the work of the English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner (1789-1862). Ensor also produced signed copies of Turner's work. (8) With Turner, Ensor is primarily fascinated by the dynamic and atmospheric rendering of the light. His quest for a striking light effect experiences a high point in his masterpiece from 1889, Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise (Tr. 287), in which the archangel is portrayed as the incarnation and bearer (Lucifer) of the heavenly light. In his painting, Christ Calming the Water (Tr. 329), Ensor knew so well how to render water and light synthetically that the two elements of nature are not able to be distinguished from each other. With respect to composition, the work is indebted to Turner's oil paintings Snowstorm: Steam Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842; Tate Britain, London) and Shade and Darkness-The Evening of the Deluge (1843; Tate Britain, London).

Just like Turner, Ensor tries to reproduce the feeling of the Sublime, whereby the Sublime is understood such as the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) expressed it in Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1818 & 1844) and Über das Sehn und die Farben (1816). Schopenhauer indicates that various gradations exist in order to reproduce the Sublime in art, and amongst which the Sublime nature is the highest good. Or, whether the Sublime, such as the English art historian and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797) expressed in his ground-breaking work, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), had influenced Ensor, is the quite the question. That Ensor had read Schopenhauer is certain. A letter from 2 August 1928 to the Flemish art critic André De Ridder bears witness to this:

J'ai lu comme chacun, et relu les écrivains classiques durant les mois d'esclavage utile passés   l'Académie de Bruxelles de 1877   1880, et puis: Goethe, Cervantès, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Schopenhauer, Leopardi, Hugo. (9)

Other British Artists

Émile Verhaeren expounded upon the influence of British artists on James Ensor in his study on the artist from 1908:

L'erreur serait grande si l'on se figurait qu'  cause de ses origines britaniques (sic), Ensor se soit complu   réapprendre comme certains peintres modernes l'art des Reynols (sic) ou des Gainsborough ou se soit assimilé n'importe quelle méthode des préraphaelites illustres. L'anglomanie qui s'est glissée jusque dans l'esthétique l'a épargné. Ce n'est point par des qualités extérieures et souvent artificielles qu'il se rattache aux maîtres de l  bas, mais bien, naturellement, par certains dons fonciers et rares. Il est de leur famille, sans le vouloir. Il est audacieux et harmonieux comme Turner, sans qu'il s'y applique, sans qu'il s'en doute. Il aime les effets tumultueux et larges de Constable sans qu'aucune de ses toiles fasse songer aux paysages célèbres de ce grand peintre. La parenté est souteraine (sic) et comme secrète. Elle se manifeste dans la manière de comprendre et d'aimer la nature, dans la sensibilité aigue de l'oeil, dans la franchise et l'audace des conceptions, dans la pratique du dessin pictural, dans la délicatesse mêlée   la force, dans la plaisanterie unie   la brutalité. Dès que cette dernière caractéristique est atteinte, James Ensor rejoint non plus Constable ni Turner, mais Grilray (sic) et Rowlanson (sic) plus encore que Jérôme Bosch ou Pierre Breughel. (10)

Ensore was likewise inspired by the apocalyptic paintings of John Martin (1789-1854). Ensor's etching, Capture of a Strange Town (T. 33) from 1888 and Roman Victory (T. 78) from 1890 (not from 1889 as Taevernier lists) accommodate panoramas of exotic cities with groups of people and animated, eclectic architecture. (11) Statues, pyramids, colonnades and arcades are taken up in busy composition. John Martin made engraved copies of a variety of his paintings such as The Fall of Babylon (1819), The Fall of Niniveh (1828) and Marcus Curtius (1827). The gravures were published in various British and other newspapers. (12) Moreover, one of the versions of Belshazzar's Feast (1820) was reproduced in La Peinture anglaise (1882) by the French art historian Ernest Chesneau, which certainly must have caught Ensor's eye. (13)

Ensor's Christ Calming the Waters is very reminiscent of Christ stilleth the Tempest (c.1830-40), which was painted by Martin explicitly in the style of Turner. (14) In 1828, an edition of Milton's Paradise Lost was illustrated by Martin. (15) It is impossible to retrieve whether Ensor knew this version, but a few themes illustrated by Martin, such as The Fall of the Rebel Angels, The Creation of Light, and Adam and Eve driven out of Paradise would show up as the subject in Ensor's paintings. The composition of Ensor's etching Capture of a Strange Town is possibly indebted to Pandemonium, one of the plates in Martin's version of Paradise Lost. (16)

Ensor was familiar with the renewed theories of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement. Walter Crane (1845-1915) was a guest in 1891 at the salon of Les XX, and Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893) in 1893. (17) The last volume of John Ruskin's Modern Painters appeared in 1860 and in La Peinture anglaise, Chesneau referred to the publication of his Histoire de l'école préraphaélite. (18) That Ensor knew Oliver-Georges Destrée's book on the Pre-Raphaelites is likely to be attributed to his friendship with the Belgian writer and politician Jules Destrée (1863-1936). (19) Moreover, Ensor was not indifferent to the revival of the Middle Ages' and Gothic architecture, the revaluation of the Flemish Primitives and the painters from the 15th Century in Italy, or the renewed interest in Dante and Shakespeare. Many of his works fit in this specific context, such as The Consoling Virgin (Tr. 354) from 1892, amongst which is a self-portrait as St. Luke, kneeling before Mary with his painting as an offering. The work makes one think of the annunciation from the quattrocento and is possibly inspired by Ruskin's drawing after Fra Angelico for the frontispiece of volume 5 of his Modern Painters. (20)

When James Ensor visited London in 1892, it can hardly be otherwise that it was then that he honoured the museums with a visit and in this way enhanced his knowledge of the British art. Ensor was probably up to date on a large number of books with caricatures that came on the market in England in the 19th Century. Here we can think of An Historical Sketch of the Art of Caricaturing (1813) by James Peller Malcolm, A Book of Caricatures (c.1862) by Mary Darly and History of Caricature and Grotesque Art (1865) by Thomas Wright. The French writer and art critic Champfleury (pseudonym of Jules Husson) published a series of books in Paris on the history of the caricature through the ages. Malcolm's work was translated into French in 1875, published by Delahays in Paris. Many plates in the book by James Peller Malcolm, especially the caricature types in folk attire or the various caricature heads, possibly inspired Ensor.

One of the artists to whom Ensor looked was Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), who published The Miseries of Human Life in 1807 and Microcosm of London in 1808. Rowlandson worked together with Woodward on the print series Caricature Magazine and Mirror of Mirth (published from 1807 on), from which the cover inspired Ensor for a drawing. Emile Verhaeren used this in turn for the cover of his Ensor monograph from 1908. The Caricatures of Gillray with Historical and Political Illustrations appeared in 1818 and George Cruikshank (1792-1878) and his brother Robert (1789-1856) published Life in London in 1821. These British publications were already successful and inspired artist on the continent, such as the Frenchman J.J. Grandville (1803-1847) in his book Petites misères humaines (1843). Grandville was a celebrated graphic artist and published his fantasy-rich prints in the most well-known periodicals of the time such as L'Artiste, Le Magasin pittoresque, L'Illustration and Charivari. In his illustrated works Un autre monde (1844) and Les Métamorphoses du Jour (1829) humans were portrayed as animals with the same passions and lack of manners such as the people that can be found in Gulliver's Travels (also illustrated by Grandville in a French edition from 1838). The influence of Grandville is felt in Ensor's etching Peculiar Insects (T. 46) from 1888 or in the oil painting The Fantastic Musicians (Tr. 337) from 1891.

English Caricaturists

Ensor was fascinated by the human passions, facial expressions and habits. With the etching Characters and Caricatures (1743), William Hogarth (1697-1764) makes it clear for us what the difference is between "character" and "caricature". (21) Ensor used the English caricature in a very personal manner. To illustrate, we can compare The Baths of Ostend (Tr. 115 and 322) with Summer Amusements at Margate or A Peep at the Mermaids by Rowlandson. (22) Between 1888 and 1900 Ensor's satires became sharper. The Wise Judges (Tr. 345), The Bad Doctors (Tr. 346) and The Dangerous Cooks (Tr. 381) are characteristic for this period. (23) Other works underline Ensor's outspoken opinion of social injustice. In his colour drawings The Massacre of the Fishermen (1888) and The Strike (1888; KMSKA, Antwerp) he repudiates the brutal repression, just as George Cruikshank did in his Massacre at St. Peter's (1819). (24)

In the The Wise Judges from 1891, Ensor parodies the 17th-century group portraits from the Netherlands. Judges are portrayed as cardboard figures in a shooting booth. Previously, William Hogarth had attacked the judicial apparatus in The Court (1758) with 2 sleeping and 2 quarreling judges. (25) In the caricature The Bad Doctors (1893) Ensor communicates his skepticism for the medical world. Ensor made the painting after a cholera epidemic in Belgium in 1892. Six doctors stand ready to operate. The men are professors on the faculty of medicine from the Free University of Brussels. The patient lies in bed with a severely swollen abdomen while the doctors try to remove a tapeworm. The brutal character makes one think of Hogarth's series of etchings, The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751), and most of all the fourth etching, The Reward of Cruelty, in which he shows the inhumanity of the medical sector. A group of doctors examine the body of a criminal that is the subject of a dissection. On the foreground is a dog who is eating the human remains of the criminal who had mistreated him. (26) The theme of gluttony and culinary enjoyment was used by Hogarth in An Election Entertainment: Four Prints of an Election (1755), with compositions based upon 16th and 17th-century paintings from the Netherlands (Brouwer, Teniers, Steen). (27) We encounter a similar tumult and commotion in various drawings by Ensor, such as The Fight of the Down-and-Outs (1887).

In A French Ordinary (1801-04), Rowlandson emphasizes gluttony in general and specifically in the French kitchen. (28) We see how a cook prepares a bland pot-au-feu while the guests are busy eating a dinner full of dubious ingredients and a cat and a frog hang from the ceiling. Gillray makes a presentation in the print Dumourier dining in State at St. James's (1793) of the politicians Fox, Sheridan and Priestley with red Jacobite bonnets on. (29) They are dressed as cooks and present the head of William Pitt on a platter to Dumourier, whose mouth is watering at the sight of the delicious meal. Just as biting is Ensor's The Dangerous Cooks from 1896. Ensor reveals the test that a few members of Les XX must endure and refers to their difference of opinion with Octave Maus (1856-1919) and Edmond Picard (1836-1924). Maus was secretary of Les XX and had profound influence on the annual exhibitions. Picard was a well-known lawyer and one of the publishers of L'Art moderne, the periodical of Les XX and La Libre Esthétique. (30) Both were prominent figures of the Belgian avant-garde, the reason why Ensor presented them as dangerous cooks. They have prepared dinner for the critics. We recognise from left to right, Edouard Fétis, Eugène Demolder, Camille Lemonnier, Max Sulzberger and Emile Verhaeren. The figure on the staircase is Théo Hannon. The prepared meal is not at all appealing to the guests: Verhaeren and Sulzberger vomit. Hannon suffers from diarrhea and runs to the toilet. The head of the Belgian musicians and members of Les XX are prepared by the two cooks. On one plank rest the heads of the painters Georges Lemmen and Théo van Rijsselberghe. Painters Anna Boch is portrayed as a chicken that hangs from the ceiling and on the ground we see Charles van der Stappen made up as a pig and Henry de Groux as a crab. In Edmond Picard's pot sits the head of Guillaume Vogels. In addition to that, Octave Maus serves Ensor's head on a bed of buckling herring on a porcelain platter with lemon and parsley. The small board on Ensor's head reads: ‘ART ENSOR', a wordplay on hareng saur or pickled herring. (31)

The Crowd and the Skeleton

The first time that Ensor expressed his preference for a crowd is in the etching The Cathedral from 1886 (T. 7). The most intense presentation of this is found in the painting The Entrance of Christ into Brussels in 1889 (Tr. 293, The Getty, Los Angeles) from 1888-89. It is possible that Ensor was inspired by the print A View of Cheapside, as it appeared on Lord's Mayor's Day Last (1761) by John June or Promis'd Horrors of the French Invasion (1796) by James Gillray. (32) The two personages in the lower-right corner of Ensor's masterpiece are possibly caricatures of real, though unidentified, persons that are based on The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (1814-20; Mount St. Mary's Seminary, Cincinnatti) by Brit Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846). In this painting portraits of Keats, Wordsworth and Voltaire are taken up on the right side. (33)

The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 offers up Ensor's favourite themes: religion, carnival, parades, folklore, politics, art critique and literature. The taking over of aspects from Christ's entry into Jerusalem shows Ensor's preference for pastiche and anachronism. There is evidence of a great deal of painterly, historical and literary references. (34) Various 18th-century artists take up the crowd as the subject of their art work. (35) The paintings of Hogarth with images of England influenced an entire generation. Hogarth illustrates the satirical narrative poem Hudibras (1674-78) by Samuel Butler (1613-1680), published in 1727, with twelve satiric engravings. Hudibras Encounters the Skimmington, plate 7 of the series, represents the Skimmington comical procession of roguish women with their submissive men, riding on horseback over the streets. (36)

In 1816, George Cruikshank published the coloured print, The Entry of the Blue Candidate into Gloucester, a caricature of an electoral tour of inspection. (37) It seems that Cruikshank was inspired by Carlo Kahn's Triumphal Entry into Leadenhall Street (1783) by James Sayers, a parody of Entrée de Sancho dans l'Isle de Barataria (1723-24), one of the illustrations of the French painter Charles-Antoine Coypel for Cervantes's Don Quixote. (38) It is a parody of the celebratory entrance of kings and princes into cities, a centuries-old tradition. The theme of the entrance of Christ is also used in a painting by John Martin and in a print by Benjamin Haydon from 1820. (39)

Ensor, like many others, was fascinated by the pictorial and symbolic power that the skeleton produced. Already since the Middle Ages, the skeleton had a place in the iconographical, religious context. In the 19th Century the theme was picked up again. In 1833, the art dealer Francis Douce published Holbein's Dance of the Dead (published for the first time in 1538 in Lyon). Félicien Rops (1833-1898), Alfred Rethel (1816-1859) and Rodolphe Bresdin (1822-1898) used skeletons as the protagonists in their macabre compositions. Between 1814 and 1816 Rowlandson, under the influence of Hans Holbein, produced an album with drawings entitled, The English Dance of Death. (40) Prints were made from the drawings and published monthly. British artists created a new realisation by implementing the skeleton as an allegory of the dead.
Rowlandson's skepticism of the medical world once again came to the surface in Death in the Dissection Room. The dead come with vengeance to the surgeons who examine bodies stolen from the churchyard. (41) In the series, Pierrot sits on an English beach between Death and Pantalone, who are yelling at him. Pierrot has attacked an old man with a knife. (42) The figure of Pierrot also enjoyed a revival in the 19th Century. (43) Another composition of Rowlandson's in the series is called Death and the Portrait. A skeleton sits in front of an artist's easel and paints a portrait of a sleeping old man. (44) The idea of the memento mori is strongly present here. In a painting from 1897 or 1898, James Ensor portrayed himself as a skeleton that sits before an easel. One of the first works by Ensor with a skeleton is the etching My Portrait from 1960 (T. 34).

Both in 1903 and 1904, Ensor produced a few washed drawings with skeletons playing billiards. They look very much like The English Dance of Death by Rowlandson. (45) The painting, Skeletons fighting over a Pickled herring (Tr. 335), from 1891 is an enigmatic painting by Ensor in which he portrayed himself as a pickled herring (hareng saur) that is fought over by the art critics Fétis and Sulzberger, depicted as two skeletons. The composition is comparable with that of Isaac Cruikshank's Bone of Contention in the print Different Sensations (1790). (46) The British politicians Edmund Burke and Richard Sheridan fight over a bone. We already mentioned that it is not certain that Ensor knew the writings of Burke, such as A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), in which he deals with the relationship between astonishment and the Sublime. Is Ensor's painting, The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse from 1889 (Tr. 302), a reference to Burke? (47)

Skeletons and masks are often difficult to distinguish from each other in Ensor's oeuvre. The manner in which he sensitively expands the role of these attributes is original. To associate the mask through the skeleton, he gives the skeleton a new symbolic and painterly realisation. Various Belgian artists such as Antioine Wiertz (1806-1865), Félicien Rops (1883-1898) and Léon Frédéric (1856-1940) produced the skeleton before Ensor, but Ensor was the first modern painter who knew how to load it with so much power. His obsession with death and the presentation of it occupied him for his whole life and were the subject of psycho-analytical research. (48)


Ensor reworked various themes from literature, folklore and the carnival and adapted them to specific situations from his private and public life. He admonished the political situation in Belgium in two etchings from 1889. They are examples of biting political satire that are influenced by English specimens: Doctrinal Nourishment (T. 79) and Belgium in the 19th Century (T. 81). Just as Isaac Cruikshank (1756-1811) did in A Picture of Great Britain in the Year 1793, Ensor also provided a picture of the political climate during his lifetime. (49) Ensor expressed criticism about the shortcomings of democracy and underlined the legitimate demands of the Belgian folk: right to vote, mandatory and free education and a national army.

Ensor also took on Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo. Henry de Groux (1866-1930), member of Les XX and Ensor's friend, exhibited works shown in 1888 and 1889 that had a connection with the Battle of Waterloo. (50) Ensor was clearly impressed by the spectacular frescoes. The satires of Gillray and Cruikshank of Napoleon were a few of the most well-known examples of the genre. (51) The series Little Boney by Gillray enjoyed success outside of England. The various versions that Ensor made of the Battle of Waterloo are complex scenes with many people and with the emphasis upon military display. In the large pastel drawings The Cavalrymen of Waterloo (1891) and The Last Stand at Waterloo (1889), the soldiers are merely marionettes in a sea of chaos. (52) Napoleon himself is the subject in the etching Napoleon's Farewell (T. 111) from 1897, and also the small painting The Remorse of the Ogre of Corsica (Tr. 311) (1890/91), in which Napoleon is portrayed as a corpulent and melancholic little man, dreaming about his previous victories.

Goya, Bosch and Bruegel

During Ensor's visit in November 1884 to the Palace of Fine Arts in Lille, Las Viejas (1808-1810) and Las Jovenes (1814-1819) of Goya made a strong impression. He bears witness to this in a letter to his Spanish friend and painter Dario de Regoyos (1857-1913):

Il y a un mois j'ai eu la chance de voir le musée de Lille. Cela m'a renversé ! (...) Les chefs-d'œuvre du musée sont les Goya. J'ai vu Les Vieilles : Deux vieilles en costumes de bal se regardant dans un petit miroir sur le dos duquel est écrit : « Que tal ? ». Dans le fond, le Temps qui va leur flanquer un solide coup de balai. Jamais je n'ai vu de figures plus affreuses, elles m'ont impressionné vivement.Puis, Les Jeunes : Deux jeunes filles en plein air, lisant un billet doux. Dans le fond des laveuses ; le fond est peint comme un Manet. Encore de Goya, Le Garrot : un homme étranglé, seul sur un échafaud et faisant une grimace terrible, devant un tas de monde, dans le fond un ciel sinistre, noir, plein d'orage. C'est bien peint et d'un bel effet. Ces peintures espagnoles m'ont remué le sang. (53)

His letter gives us an overview of his artistic interests during his youth. Possibly he drew an etching of Goya's Las Viejas during his visit and The garottingpost, which was then attributed to Goya. (54) (55) Goya had an enormous impact on his power of imaging. The influence is felt, inter alia, in Ensor's oil painting The Old Woman with Masks (Tr. 305) from 1889 or Surly Countenance (Tr. 312) and in various drawings such as The Ghost from 1885 (collection of the Art Institute of Chicago).

In addition to the fantastic works of Goya, the works of Bosch and Bruegel are primarily those which piqued his unfettered power of imaging. In his letter at the end of 1894, or beginning of 1895, to the Flemish art critic and poet Pol de Mont (1857-1931), Ensor wrote:

Voici quelques renseignements : Rembrandt m'a plu d'abord beaucoup mais mes sympathies sont allées beaucoup plus tard   Goya et Turner. Je fus charmé de trouver deux maîtres épris de lumière et de violence. Les inventions extraordinaires de Jérôme Bosch et Pierre Brueghel me plurent extrêmement aussi. Je trouvais les œuvres supérieures   celles des autres maîtres de l'école flamande. (56)

The francophone, Belgian periodical Vie Nouvelle published in its May 1900 issue Ensor's burning requisitory with the Ensorian title, Une Réaction artistique au Pays de Narquosie, in which he took issue with the Flemish painters of his time as having a total lack of originality and whose works were devoid of colour. With this he contrasted them against the artists for whom he expressed his admiration:

Vive le peintre ignorant et surnaïf. Saluez encore : Rubens, Vinci, Michel-Ange, Ingres et vous aussi brave Bosch tenté par tous les diables, et vous Goya le grand inquiet, et vous Turner, l'étincelant, et Callot, et Rosa, les spirituels égratigneurs, et Cellini, l'enragé dagueur et vous surtout méprisant Patinier (sic), saluez, saluez !!! (57)

The residuals of the work of Bosch is found in Ensor's oil painting The Fantastic Musicians (or The Terrified Musicians) (Tr. 337) from 1891 and in his etching The infernal Cortege (T. 10) from 1886 or 1887, The Terrible Archer (T. 36) and Wizards in a Squall (T. 52), both of the latter from 1888. The figure of Death (depicted as a skeleton) in the oil painting of Bosch's Death of a Miser (ca. 1494 or later; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.), one again finds in Ensor's grotesque painting The Bad Doctors (Tr. 346) from 1892 in which Death appears also as a skeleton to the left in a door opening.

In 1888, Ensor etches Devils Trashing Angels and Archangels (T. 23). The composition is inspired by The Fall of the Rebelling Angels (1562) by Pieter Bruegel (KMSKB, Brussels). Bruegel's work in turn is inspired by the fantastic work of Bosch. For the composition of his etching The Skaters (T. 65) from 1889, Ensor found inspiration in Bruegel's painting Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird trap (1565; KMSKB, Brussels). The posture of the two protagonists in Skeletons Fighting over the body of a Hanged Man (Tr. 334) from 1891 is found again in Bruegel's Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The fight of the two ravenous skeletons fits perfectly with the content of Bruegel's work. In 1892, Ensor paints The Sermon of St. Babylas (Tr. 359). It deals with a work in grisaille tints and is graphically executed. It refers to a number of grisaille drawings by Pieter Bruegel, amongst which in particular is Fides (Faith) (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). In the same year, Ensor paints Penitent Soldiers in a Cathedral (Tr. 361) in an archaic style. The oil painting is painted primarily in grey tones with a dash of colour here and there. In 1893, Ensor paints The Execution (Tr. 363), also a work in grisaille that is more in line with being an elevated drawing than of an oil painting. All of these satirical and enigmatic works make up a part of a series of pseudo-historical and religious paintings.

The grotesque dancing figures from the series of 24 etchings, entitled Balli di Sfessania (ca. 1622), and the two versions of The Temptation of St. Anthony (1616/17 & 1634) by the French graphic artist Jacques Callot (1592-1635) stimulated Ensor's imagination. Ensor's etching The Pisser (T. 12) from 1887 refers to the eponymous drawing by Callot (Uffizi, Florence).

Older Contemporaries

Ensor made pastiches or cited works by older contemporaries such as Adolphe Monticelli (1824-1886) and Henri de Braekeleer (1840-1888). Monticelli's compositions of park views with strolling or music-making personages find their origin in the work of Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). The French painter from the late 17th Century was known for his colourful fêtes galantes, in which music-making personages kept a select, aristocratic company in a flower garden or a park. From Watteau's work, entitled La Gamme d'amour (ca. 1712; National Gallery, London), Ensor borrowed the title for his album of lithographs from 1929 (T. 140). The atmosphere of Watteau's and Monticelli's work is evident in The Garden of Love (Tr. 290) from 1888 as well as in the version from 1891 (Tr. 328). The theme of the garden of love finds its origins in Ruben's oil painting The Garden of Love from circa 1630 (Museo del Prado, Madrid). Ensor expresses his admiration for Rubens in two versions (from 1937 and 1938): Une Figure célèbre, Jef Vogelpik et Rubens reluquant féminités grassouillettes (Tr. 742 & 770). Here we find Rubens and Jef Vogelpik, an Ostend folk figure, both ogling naked, sensual women. It is a satirical allusion to the Biblical Suzanna, whom was ogled by old men during bath time. Ensor also took over the typical impasto from Monticelli.

Ensor's Woman embroidering (Tr. 306) from 1888 seems to be a tribute to Henri de Braekeleer, who died in that same year. The colour palette, the painting style and the composition of the oil painting of de Braekeleer's The Man in the Chair (1876; KMSKA, Antwerp) are almost identical to Ensor's Woman embroidering.

Throughout his entire career, Ensor would remain fascinated by the theme of the temptation of St. Anthony. (58) The composition of his oil painting The Temptation of St. Anthony (Tr. 288) from 1887 is partially inspired by the eponymous work of the Flemish painter Pieter Huys (ca. 1519-ca.1584) (Musée du Louvre, Paris). (59) The many versions of The Temptation of St. Anthony by Pieter Huys's contemporary Jan Mandijn (c.1500-c.1560) were also an important source of inspiration for James Ensor.

In his cryptic self-portrait The Man of Sorrows (Tr. 331) from 1891, Ensor portrayed himself as the suffering Christ. (60) The imagery is possibly inspired by The Man of Sorrows by Albrecht Bouts (c.1450-1549) and by Chinese or Japanese theatre masks. Ensor possessed an image of the work by Bouts (KMSKA, Antwerp). The composition of Ecce Homo (Tr. 330), also from 1891, seems to be inspired by the eponymous work by the Italian Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna (c.1431-1506) from 1500 (Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris). The caricatural figures to the left and right of the Christ figure are in turn based upon the grotesque figures of Quinten Metsys (1466-1529).

In 1893, Ensor paints the Portrait of Eugène Demolder (Tr. 365), which he exhibited at the salon of La Libre Esthétique in Brussels in 1894 with the title: Icône. (61) This alternative title is manifold in meaning. His friend, the art critic and writer, Eugène Demolder (1862-1919) is depicted as a saint, flanked by two spewing devils. (62) This saint could well be Saint John the Baptist, who heralds the coming of James Ensor as the Messiah of Belgian painting. Behind the figure of Demolder we see blue, waving motifs that perhaps symbolise the River Jordan. Above Demolder two older works are found. One depicts a painted copy by Ensor of the Madonna in the Rose Garden by the Rhineland primitive Stefan Lochner (c.1410-1452) (Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne). The other is a painting from the life of Christ, after an unknown Master. Why Ensor took up the work of Lochner in his painting remains a mystery for the time being. Did Demolder bring Lochner's work to Ensor's attention that is indebted to Byzantine Art? It is a possible explanation for the title of Icône.

In 1902, a large thematic overview exhibition was organised on the Flemish Primitives. (63) This event is the result of the growing interest for the so-called Old Masters and for the Flemish Primitives in particular. Numerous Belgian artists (including, inter alia, George Minne, Fernand Khnopff, Constant Montald, Xavier Mellery), and writers (such as Verhaeren, Maeterlink and Grégoire Le Roy) from the second half of the 19th Century were fascinated by this late-Medieval art. Abroad as well there was a renewed interest for the so-called Gothic artists or Primitives. In Great Britain, it was primarily the Pre-Raphaelites and in France in particular the painters from the group of Les Nabis who were inspired by the Old Masters.

In 1902, Ensor painted the portrait of the Brussels art handler and restorer Paul Buéso (1871-1918), with the title The Antiquarian, or The Art Lover (Tr. 403). (64) Buéso sits on a high table, on which various images stand erected: a plaster or marble Venus (Venus Medici), a plaster or marble faun, a Chinese mandarin made of porcelain. Behind Buéso three paintings hang: upper-left is an image of Lucretia, upper-right an image of Cleopatra and below that, an Annunciation. The work that depicts Lucretia is one of the many versions and copies of the painting of the Master of the Holy Blood. The work with the depiction of Cleopatra is one of the many versions by the Italian Renaissance painter Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli (active 1495-14590), better known as Giampietrino. The Annunciation, finally is probably a copy of the work by the German (Swabian) Master of the Life of Mary of Dinkelsbühl from the late 15th Century. It is worthy to note that in Ensor's work the angel Gabriel does not have wings. These three works were probably for sale by Paul Buéso, or were restored by him. Why Ensor painted the portrait of Paul Buéso is not entirely clear. Was it a commission for Ensor by Buéso? It is certain that Paul Buéso had already quite early on early work by Ensor in depot or in his possession. Perhaps Ensor painted the portrait of the Brussels art handler as a token of thanks for his proven services.

The oil painting from 1904, Virgin with masked patrons (Tr. 410) presents the Virgin Mary in the centre with the Baby Jesus in her arms, situated before a blue, vertical band of carpet. To the left and right below masked figures are presented. Of the seven masks, only one of them looks up towards the Virgin Mary. Ensor here refers to the late-Medieval painting, in which it was customary to present the Virgin Mary and her child, Jesus with the benefactors of the painting (see, for example, the paintings of Jan van Eyck). The commissioners were usually depicted to the left and/or right of the Virgin. In Ensor's, the patrons are unrecognisable because of the masks that they are wearing. It seems that the painting was done in two phases. At the start, Ensor would have only painted the Virgin and the Baby Jesus, and then later in a second phase the masked characters were added. Possibly Ensor had changed the original composition of the work. Some of the masked persons return in other works by Ensor, and still others we find again in the Ensor Museum in Ostend.

* Xavier Tricot, James Ensor. Leven en werk. Oeuvrecatalogus van de schilderijen, Brussels, 2009.
** Auguste Taevernier, James Ensor. Illustrated Catalogue of His Engravings, Their Critical Description and Inventary of the Plates, 1973.

(1) See, inter alia, his pamphlet text, "Une Réaction artistique au Pays de Narquoisie" in Mes Écrits, Liège, 1974, pp. 36-39 and his tribute to Bruegel from 1924, Ibidem, pp. 84-87.
(2) Lydia Schoonbaert, "Gazette des Beaux-Arts and The Studio as sources of inspiration for James Ensor" in Jaarboek van het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, 1978, pp. 205-221.
(3) See the drawings 2711/1-16 and 2711/18 r° in the collection of the KMSKA, Antwerp.
(4) See, inter alia, Auguste Taevernier, Het Ensor-drama in beeld. De aureolen van Kristus of de gevoeligheden van het licht, Ledeberg (Ghent), 1976; Robert Hoozee, Sabine Bown-Taevernier, J.F. Heijbroek, James Ensor. Tekeningen en prenten, Antwerp, 1987, pp. 107-119.
(5) For an extended study on the drawing, see Marcel De Mayer, "De mystieke dood van een godgeleerde van James Ensor" in Jaarboek van het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, 1962-1963, pp. 151-158; taken up again in the exhibition catalog of Between Street and Mirror: The Drawings of James Ensor, New York, The Drawing Center, 2001, pp. 187-201. Also see Patrick Florizoone, "Negentiende-eeuwse historische thema's en onbekende bronnen in het oeuvre van James Ensor" in Exhibition Cat. Ensorgrafiek in confrontatie (Ostend, Museum of Fine Arts) 1999-2000, pp. 33-35. See web publication by Xavier Tricot, James Ensor : De mystieke dood van een godgeleerde, James Ensor. An Online Museum (
(6) See, among others, Patrick Florizoone, "Negentiende-eeuwse historische thema's en onbekende bronnen in het œuvre van James Ensor", in Exhibition cat. Ensorgrafiek in confrontatie (Ostend) 1999-2000, pp. 28-30.
(7) James Ensor, Mes Écrits, Liège, 1974, p. 50.
(8) See drawing 2711/128 r° in the KMSKA Antwerp (after Turner's Odysseus mocks Polyphemus).
(9) James Ensor, Lettres, Brussels, 1999, p.191.
(10) Émile Verhaeren, James Ensor, Brussels, 1908, pp. 2-4.
(11) Günther Metken, "Prise d'une ville étrange: Ein archäologischer Tagtraum - oder die Freiheitsstatue des Künstlers zwischen Orientalismus und Oper", Exhibtion cat. James Ensor, (Kunsthaus, Zurich) 1983, pp. 210-17.
(12) Thomas Balston, John Martin, 1789-1854: His Life and Works, London, 1947, appendix 6, nrs. 34, 41, 60, pp. 276-7.
(13) Christopher Johnstone, John Martin, London, 1974, pp. 108-9 (ill), p. 51 (ill. p. 87), p. 80).
(14) Christopher Johnstone, John Martin, London, 1974, p. 82 (ill.).
(15) The Paradise Lost of Milton, (with prints by John Martin) London, 1827. See Balston, John Martin, appendix 9, nr. 4, p. 286.
(16) The theme of Pandemonium shows up in the work of Martin as gravure (mezzotint), watercolour (circa 1841) and painting (circa 1841). Balston, John Martin, appendix 8, no. 11, p. 281; appendix 7, p. 280; appendix 6, no. 2, p. 274. Johnstone, John Martin, p. 67 (ill.).
(17) Les XX: Catalogue des dix expositions annuelles, Centre International pour l'Étude du XIXe Siècle, Brussels, 1981.
(18) John Ruskin, Modern Painters (5 vols), London, 1843-60.
(19) Georges Destrée, Les Préraphaélites, Brussels, 1894.
(20) Jan van Eyck himself also inspired Ensor. His esteemed drawing from 1897, Design for a chapel consecrated to Sts Peter and Paul (Art Institute of Chicago) is indebted to the Saint Barbara (KMSKA, Antwerp), oil painting from 1437 by Jan van Eyck. (Émile Verhaeren, James Ensor, Brussels, 1908, p. 66.) In his drawing Ensor wants to achieve the same refined, elaborated details such as van Eyck in his work.
(21) Diana Donald, The Age of Caricature: Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III, New Haven and London, 1996, pl.49, p.74 (ill.).
(22) Joseph Grego, Rowlandson the Caricaturist, London, 1880, p.254 (ill.).
(23) Xavier Tricot, "Un triptique imaginaire ou trois chefs-d'œuvre de James Ensor" in Ensoriana, Antwerp, 1995, pp. 68-80.
(24) Albert M. Cohn, George Cruikshank. A Catalogue Raisonné of his Works executed between the Years 1806-1877, London, 1924, nr. 1716 (abbrev. Cohn 1716).
(25) William Hogarth, Cahier de l'art mineur, nr. 10, Paris, pl. 46 (ill.)
(26) Rosenthal, Hogarth, pl. 76, p. 101 (ill.).
(27) Rosenthal, Hogarth, pl. 67, p. 92 (ill.).
(28) Grego, Rowlandson the Caricaturist, p. 45 (ill.).
(29) Diana Donald, The Age of Caricature, pl.178, p. 167 (ill).
(30) For a history of Les XX see Madeleine-Octave Maus, Trente années de lutte pour l'art, Brussel, 1980; Exhibition Cat. De twintig en hun tijdgenoten (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels and Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo) 1962; Exhibition Cat. Les Vingt en de avant-garde in België (Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent) 1992.
(31) Xavier Tricot, Métaphores et métamorphoses de James Ensor, Paris, Artstudio, 1990, pp. 46-58.
(32) Donald, The Age of Caricature, pl. 118, p. 112; pl. 182, p. 171 (ill.).
(33) The figure to the lower right in the work of Ensor is possibly Ernest Renan (1823-1892), a French theologian who published the controversial Vie de Jésus in 1863.
(34) For an exhaustive analysis of the theme, see Stephen McGough, James Ensor's The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889, New York en London, 1985; Patricia Berman, James Ensor: Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889, Los Angeles, 2002.
For an extensive examination of the religious thematic in Ensor's work, see inter alia, Auguste Taevernier, Het Ensor-drama in beeld. De aureolen van Kristus of de gevoeligheden van het licht, Ledeberg (Ghent), 1976 ; Julian Kaplan, "The religious subjects of James Ensor 1877-1900", in Revue belge d'archéologie et d'histoire de l'art, n° 3-4, 1968, pp. 191-202. See also Patrick Florizoone, "Negentiende-eeuwse historische thema's en onbekende bronnen in het oeuvre van James Ensor", Exhibition cat. Ensorgrafiek in confrontatie, (Oostend), 1999-2000, pp. 17-44.
(35) Donald, The Age of Caricature, (Chapter 4, The Crowd in Caricature: A Picture of England).
(36) Rosenthal, Hogarth, pl. 4, p. 30 (ill.).
(37) Cohn 1092.
(38) Robinson, Edmund Burke, pl. 39, p. 54 (ill.); Donald, The Age of Caricature, pl. 69, p. 64; pl. 70, p. 65 (ill.).
(39) Balston, John Martin, appendix 6, nr. 51, p. 276; appendix 8, nr. 16, p. 282. Haydon is mentioned in Chesneau, La Peinture anglaise, p. 107.
(40) Rowlandson's Drawings for The English Dance of Death. Introduction and notes by Robert R. Wark, The Huntington Library, San Marino, 1966.
(41) Ibid., pl. 87.
(42) Ibid., pl. 28.
(43) For a critical history of Pierrot in literature, see Robert F. Storey, Pierrot: A Critical History of a Mask, Princeton, 1978. For Pierrot in the work of Ensor, see Xavier Tricot, Ensoriana, pp. 43-563. See also Thomas Kellein, Pierrot: Melancholie und Maske, Munich and New York, 1995.
(44) Rowlandson's Drawings for The English Dance of Death, pl. 16.
(45) Hoozee et al., James Ensor, p. 159 (ill.).
(46) Nicholas K. Robinson, Edmund Burke: A Life in Caricature, New Haven and London, 1996, pl. 144, p. 138 (ill.).
(47) Xavier Tricot, Who is hiding behind the mask in The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse? in James Ensor. An online museum.
(48) Herman Piron, Ensor: Een psychoanalytische studie, Antwerp, 1968.
(49) Donald, The Age of Caricature, pl. 166, p. 154 (ill.).
(50) Les XX. Catalogue des dix expositions annuelles, Centre International pour l'Etude du XIXe siècle, Brussels, 1981.
(51) A.M. Broadley, Napoleon in Caricature, 1795-1821, London, 1921.
(52) Hoozee et al., James Ensor, pl. 96, p. 144, p. 175 (ill.).
(53) Lettres, pp. 153-154.
(54) See the drawings inv. nr. 27711/148-149 in the collection of the KMSKA, Antwerp.
(55) Exhibition cat. Goya, Redon, Ensor. Groteske schilderijen en tekeningen, (KMSKA, Antwerp) 2009.
(56) Lettres, p. 132.
(57) Mes Écrits, p. 37.
(58) Xavier Tricot, "De verzoeking van de heilige Antonius : variaties op een thema van James Ensor", in Exhibition cat. Goya, Redon, Ensor : groteske schilderijen en tekeningen, KSMKA, Antwerp, 2009, pp. 223-238.
(59) Diane Lesko, James Ensor. The Creative Years, New Jersey, 1985, pp. 115-145.
(60) Xavier Tricot, "James Ensor, Homme de Douleur", Ensoriana, Antwerp, 1995, pp. 57-61.
(61) Xavier Tricot, "Icônes de James Ensor", Ensoriana, Antwerp, 1995, pp. 63-67.
(62) For an extended study on the figure of Eugène Demolder and his relationship with James Ensor, see Patrick Florizoone, "Eugène Demolder en James Ensor, een wederzijdse heiligverklaring", Exhibition cat. Bij Ensor op bezoek (Oostend) 2010, pp. 56-76.
(63) See, inter alia, Eva Tahon, Veronique de Boi, Benoît Kervyn de Volkaersbeke & Piet Boyens, "IMPACT 1902 REVISITED", Exhibition Cat. Tentoonstelling van Oude Vlaamsche Kunst, Brugge 15 juni tot 15 september 1902 (Arentshuis, Bruges) 2002; Roger Van Schoutte & Brigitte de Patoul (publ.), De Vlaamse Primitieven, Leuven, 1994.
(64) Xavier Tricot, "Icônes de James Ensor", Ensoriana, Antwerp, 1995, pp. 63-67.

Xavier Tricot