James Ensor: 13 Facts About the Belgian Pioneer of Modernism

James Ensor is a famous Belgian artist considered a real pioneer of modern art. Read along to discover more about the man behind the mask.

Sep 25, 2020By Marie-Madeleine Renauld, MA & BA Art History and Archaeology
james ensor the intrigue
The Intrigue by James Ensor, 1890, via Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp


James Ensor is a famous Belgian artist who worked at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. He took his inspiration from his family souvenir shop and the seaside resort of Ostend to produce colorful paintings populated with masked figures and skeletons. His production is unique and hard to categorize. Ahead of his time, the public misunderstood his work at first, leaving the painter hurt and tormented. Today, James Ensor is considered a real pioneer of modern art. Read along for 13 facts about the painter’s life and art.


13. James Ensor Was Raised In A Troubled Family

james ensor photograph
Photograph of James Ensor by Ernest Rousseau, 1888, via Museo Carmen Thyssen, Málaga (left); with James Ensor at his easel by James Ensor, 1890, via Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (right)


Born in 1860 in Ostend, a seaside resort in northwestern Belgium, the painter James Sidney Ensor was raised in a troubled family. His father, James Frederic Ensor, was a British engineer. In 1859 he married his mother, Maria Catherina Haegheman, a woman from Ostend. Ensor’s father has always been considered an outsider in Ostend. On top of that, the man was unemployed, mentally unstable, and suffered from several addictions, mostly alcohol and heroin. Maria Catherina, a commanding woman, strived to provide for the family. According to the painter, the Ensor family members had poor health. He had to care for his ill mother on several occasions. James Ensor himself suffered from several illnesses. The family was hardly a happy one.


In the 1880s, some of the painter’s works displayed his troublesome family relationships. Ensor depicted his father, mother, aunt, and sister in many of his works.


12. Masks Surrounded Ensor Throughout His Life

masks confronting death james ensor
Masks Confronting Death by James Ensor, 1888, MoMA, New York


Maria Catherina Haegheman, James Ensor’s mother, ran a souvenir shop in Ostend on the street floor of the building where the family lived. The shop gathered countless curiosities: seashells, corals, dolls, chinoiseries, porcelain plates, and more. Ensor’s mother also sold carnival masks, used by participants of Ostend’s famous carnival. 

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The painter took great joy in taking part in Ostend’s carnival, a lively annual event. Even his grandmother used to dress up for the occasion. He also used to participate in Brussels’ Mardi Gras.


From the 1880s onwards, masks became a distinctive object in Ensor’s paintings. These carnivalesque representations played a strong symbolic role in his work: He used masks to depict distorted social relationships that he criticized in the society of his time. The disfigured and grotesque masks of his paintings represented, for Ensor, the deformities and dark sides of humankind. The figure of Death often stands alongside the others to remind them of their future.


11. Ensor Spent Almost All His Life In His Parents’ House

skeleton painter studio james ensor
Skeleton Painter in his Studio by James Ensor, 1896, via Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp


Besides three years spent in Brussels studying at the Academy of Fine Arts (1877-1880), and a few trips to Paris, London, and The Netherlands, Ensor never left his parents’ house in Ostend. He lived in his bedroom made into a studio located on the 4th floor of a building housing on the ground floor his mother’s souvenir shop. Ensor’s bedroom reflected his paintings: a bric-a-brac of Japanese masks, seashells used as inkwells, Chinese vases, skulls wearing hats, and more.


When he was 28, Ensor met Augusta Boogaerts. “The Siren,” as he liked to call her, became his closest confidant and friend for the rest of his life. He had other female friends, but he never got married. Nobody knows why.


10. He Had A Fascination For The Arts From The Far East

skeleton looking at chinoiseries
Skeleton Looking at Chinoiseries by James Ensor, 1885-88, via Museum of Fine Arts Ghent


Like several European artists at the end of the 19th-century, James Ensor had an intense fascination for arts from the Far East. He had the opportunity to familiarize himself with Japanese imports commercialized in his mother’s shop. These items inspired him to free his work from Western artistic conventions and representation of beauty. Along with other carnival masks, Ensor painted traditional Japanese masks from Noh theater.


9. The Painter Was Proud Of Being Flemish And Belgian

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Death of Mary by James Ensor, 1885, via Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (left); with The Death of the Virgin by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1639, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (right)


James Ensor was a proud Flemish who spent almost his entire life in Ostend. Old Flemish Masters such as Pieter Brueghel the Elder, and Hieronymous Bosch largely inspired his work. Analogies exist between the Master’s work, populated by fantastic and demoniac beasts and grotesque figures, and Ensor’s paintings. However, the 19th-century painter brought modernity to his production.


Rembrandt also inspired the etcher’s strong underdrawing. During his academic education, Ensor made numerous copies after the Old Masters’ masterpieces, particularly Rembrandt. He admired his ability to balance dark and light (chiaroscuro).


Ensor also took his inspiration from his seaside hometown. He liked the maritime landscape and gloomy North Sea coastal weather and Belgian culinary specialties: oysters and French fries (frites).


8. Ensor Was Not Only A Painter But Also A Talented Engraver

the cathedral engraving james ensor
The Cathedral by James Ensor, 1886, via Museum of Fine Arts Ghent


James Ensor was not only an accomplished painter but also mastered other artistic techniques. In one of his letters to André de Ridder, art critic, he explained that each work should involve a new creative process. Ensor’s production counts 133 etchings, made between 1886 and 1904. The painter designed some of them as preparatory work of his paintings, and some were original. His academic training made him a strong etcher; he took great care in his engraving work and produced high-quality prints. Ensor sometimes colored his prints, using different techniques such as pencils, watercolor, or gouache. He kept his personal style’s characteristics in his etching, further highlighting a satirical critique of the society.


7. Ensor Used His Work As An Exchange Currency

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Le Jardin d’Amour by James Ensor, 1891, via Sotheby’s


Desperately in need of funds, Ensor started to trade his etchings as an exchange currency in Ostend. As soon as his level of fame began to grow, local shopkeepers happily accepted being paid with Ensor’s work. He used his etchings at the bakery, butcher’s, drugstore, bar, and more. Ensor’s biftecks (meat), as they used to be called, started to decorate the walls of several boutiques around Ostend.


6. Ensor Incited The Creation Of An Annual Ball Still Existing Today


In 1896, 16 men from Ostend went to Paris to enjoy Montmartre’s wild nights. They partied all nights and enjoyed the diverting shows at the Moulin Rouge. They often ended their nights at the Rat Mort (the Dead Rat), a nearby cabaret in Pigalle square. Several writers, poets, and painters, such as Charles Baudelaire, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Gustave Courbet, used to go to the Rat Mort. Ensor joined the party later, but he actively contributed to the creation of the Bal du Rat Mort (the Dead Rat Ball), This philanthropic ball created in 1898 closed the carnival celebrations in Ostend. This event still exists today.


5. Les XX, His Own Artistic Group, Rejected His Masterpiece

christ entry into brussels james ensor
Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 by James Ensor, 1888, via The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


In 1883, Octave Maus, a Belgian lawyer, art critic, and writer, initiated Le Groupe des Vingt or Les XX. This group of 20 Belgian artists meant to promote international modern art. In opposition to the Salon, the exhibit of artists supported by the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris, Les XX held an annual exhibition of its members’ works and invited artists. They proclaimed themselves as an anarchist group, yet freedom of expression was essential for them too.


Despite being a founding member of Les XX, James Ensor got one of his works rejected by the group. Les XX did not accept his Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889. Considered as Ensor’s masterpiece, this large (99 x 169 in.) painting depicts a colorful, roaring crowd during Brussels’ carnival. The Christ, interpreted as the painter’s self-portrait, is barely visible in the center of the painting, ignored by the surrounding mob. It represents a satire of modern Belgian society and anticipates the 20th-century expressionist movement. Even the avant-garde Les XX group misunderstood his work. 


Ensor kept the painting in his studio. The public first saw it in 1929, during a major retrospective of his work in Brussels.


4. The Artist Had Sympathy For Anarchism

belgium nineteenth century james ensor
Belgium in the Nineteenth Century by James Ensor, via Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels


At the end of the 19th-century, Belgium was a place of lively political debates. The painter had some affinities with Socialism and Anarchism. But it is hard to assess the extent to which he embraced these ideologies. In fact, like many artists of his time, the painter never publicly proclaimed his political opinions. Ensor produced satires against King Leopold. In his masterpiece, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, Ensor painted banners bearing slogans such as “Long live the Social”. The painter probably had some sympathy for the anti-authoritarian side of fin-de-siècle Anarchism. He hated established order and rules.


3. His Art Was Driven By Literature

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Menu for Ernest Rousseau by James Ensor, 1896, via Museum of Fine Arts Ghent


James Ensor considered his art driven by literature; he found support for his work among Symbolist writers such as Edmond Picard and Albert Mockel. There is a strong relationship between his work and Belgian Symbolist literature. 


New magazines in Belgium at the end of the 19th-century like L’Art Moderne (Les XX’s publication), La Revue Belge, and La Jeune Belgique published several articles about the “Fantastic Reality”. Imagination and mystery were seen as the best way to describe emotions. As Ensor’s work went in the same direction, he received praise from the articles’ writers. Some of the Symbolists’ texts inspired Ensor’s work, each of his paintings or prints telling a story. 


Ensor himself wrote many letters and texts of all sorts, helping to understand his opinions and work further.


2. He Used Scatological Imagery To Criticize Contemporary Society

doctrinal nourishment james ensor scat
Doctrinal Nourishment by James Ensor, 1889, via Museum of Fine Arts Ghent


Ensor liked to consider himself the heir of the ancient Flemish Masters. He borrowed some of their satirical symbols in his work, especially scatological imagery. Yet, with Ensor, it became more political.


He regularly depicted people vomiting, pissing, or defacing and associated them with characters dressed as middle-class, clergy, rulers, or kings. Ensor used this imagery to lessen their stature: Even these people have to do their business. In his painting Tribulations of Saint Anthony, the crooked-nose Saint Anthony stands on a pile of excrements. To him, the contemporary materialist society caused the decline of spirituality. As an anarchist, the goal of scatological imagery in his work was to shock the public and Les XX members who rejected his work.


In a Freudian way, we can also interpret this fascination as a sign of the painter’s repressed sexuality.


1. James Ensor’s Genius Was Belatedly Acknowledged

tribulations of saint anthony james ensor
Tribulations of Saint Anthony by James Ensor, 1887, via MoMA, New York 


Like several geniuses, James Ensor was probably too ahead of his time. His artistic talent got acknowledged only towards the end of his life. The public and critics did not appreciate his paintings’ grotesque figures and bold colors. 


His attempts to sell his works to museums were unsuccessful. In 1893, as he desperately needed money, he even attempted to sell all of his studio’s paintings for only 800 Belgian francs. Yet, at the time, there were no interested buyers.


The fame came only around the 1920s-30s. Although his sympathy went for anarchists, Ensor implied on several occasions that he would receive the title of Baron with great pride. He wanted the title in memory of his father, and for personal satisfaction. King Albert of Belgium answered his wish in 1929. He made James Ensor a Baron on the occasion of a retrospective of his work in the newly built Palace of Fine Arts in Brussels.


In 1933 Ensor was nicknamed “The Prince of painters and Art” by his fellow artists during an event in Brussels. Anatole de Monzie, French Minister of Education, granted the artist the Légion d’Honneur tie.


Yet, while the fame came, he abandoned the painting for music. In 1906, his friends Mr. and Mrs. Lambotte gave him a harmonium. Ensor called the instrument “my precious solitude companion.”


James Ensor died in Ostend in 1949, aged 89. A grand funeral procession followed his coffin to Mariakerke church.


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Portrait of James Ensor on Belgian 100 franc note, 1995, via National Bank of Belgium, Brussels


Like another Belgian artist of the same time, Victor Horta, James Ensor’s portrait illustrated the 100 Belgian Francs note of the last series before the Euro.


After being excluded from Les XX group, Ensor preferred not to be associated with any other organization or artistic movement. He thought his work was unique. Though difficult to categorize, Ensor was a real pioneer of modern art. He had a considerable influence on artists and future artistic movements such as Expressionism and Surrealism.



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By Marie-Madeleine RenauldMA & BA Art History and ArchaeologyMarie-Madeleine is a contributing writer and antique furniture restorer. She holds an MA and BA in Art History and Archaeology from the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), Belgium. She also followed training in antique furniture restoration. In her free time, she enjoys creative activities, and hiking through the Swiss mountains where she now lives.