Looking at this self portrait by James Ensor, when do you think it might have been painted, and what statement do you think the artist is making?
Take a minute to let your eyes look around the painting and find as many visual clues as possible.
Firstly, aside from the highly inappropriate hat, the man himself could almost be from this decade – as beards and moustaches are popular again. But, cover the hat and feathers, and you could easily imagine that the portrait was a serious academic work, painted centuries ago. Certainly the expression on his face is serious – here is a man who appears both proud and strong, perhaps with a hit of introversion.
Any suggestion of Rembrandt, or Rubens?
But, put the hat on, and the man appears ridiculous.
Perhaps the hat is just a bit of fun, a bit of fancy dress, but as the wearer looks far too serious – and as we know from the title that it’s a self portrait – Ensor must be intending to make a statement of some sort.
Back to the hat, with the flowers and downward facing plumage, it’s definitely not one we would expect to see worn today, or during Ruben’s time. It looks like it could be from a century or more ago. Another close look at the design of the hat, the flowers, the way in which the colours sit together, the loose brush strokes, and the overall use of light – and what do we think of? Ah, perhaps it’s an Impressionist painting.
But it couldn’t be, because that doesn’t fit with the rest of the artwork!
It’s not obvious when we first look at the picture, but in the background (also suggestive of a period when darker backgrounds were commonly used) there is a hint of a blue circle (frame) around the edge. When were portraits with circular or oval frames popular? Back to the 17th Century.
But this is a self portrait, so perhaps it isn’t meant to represent a picture frame, but the frame of a mirror?
Ah, now it starts to make more sense.
Perhaps, it was originally intended as a ‘straight’ academic self portrait, based on the artist’s formal academic training, including the study of Rubens, whom he admired greatly. Perhaps along the way he was influenced by other artists, such as the Impressionists, and wanted at a later time to express this influence. And perhaps as an artist highly interested in fantasy and masks, he saw that combining the two in a frame or mirror would represent who he was as an artist. Perhaps he wanted to make it clear that he was an artist who defied convention.
This work by James Ensor, painted originally in 1883 and then added to (yes the hat, and the twirled moustache) in 1888, is a great example of how artists reflect both the influences on their art through formal training and discovery, and their own personality, to make a statement in an artwork, and why the study of art history is so interesting.
In my next blog, I’ll tell you more about this intriguing Belgian artist and his life story.
This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art which is designed for adult learners and students of art history.
This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris, key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.
If you like to see some of the French and Australian artwork you’ll find in my gallery, scroll down to the bottom of the page.