James Ensor – Symbolist and Expressionist

James Ensor, Shells and Shellfish, 1889
James Ensor, Shells and Shellfish, 1889

James Ensor  recalled that his childhood was spent in “… the midst of gleaming, mother of pearl coloured shells, with dancing shimmering reflections and the bizarre skeletons of sea monsters and plants. The marvellous world full of colours, this super abundance of reflections and refractions made me into a painter who is in love with colour and delighted by the blinding glow of light“.

However, his interest in light did not mirror that of his Impressionist contemporaries, and Ensor’s artistic style can’t easily be categorised, although in the 19th Century his work was seen as both Symbolist and Expressionist.

As eccentric as he was unorthodox, Ensor worked largely in isolation from the main streams of art in that period.   His pictures were largely expressive, often satirical and could be both garish and aggressive.  He is possibly best known for his bizarre masks and masqueraders, however, during his lifetime he also created approximately 900 paintings, 4,000 drawings, and 133 etchings, on a broad range of subjects including portraits and landscapes.

James Ensor was born in 1860 in Ostend, Belgium, which was not only a royal seaside resort, but also a popular carnival town. He grew up in a country whose monarchy was just thirty years old, where the church was struggling for influence and rapid industrialisation  exacerbated tensions between the two main population groups. He would again and again refer to the political, socio-economic and ethnic divisions with Belgium in his art.

Except for a short time studying in Brussels at the at the Académie Royale des Beaux Arts from 1877 to 1880, he lived his whole life in Ostend. However, his time in Brussels was important to his career. Although he complained about  the dry conventional approach  and being “forced to paint from a colourless plaster cast a bust of Octavian, the grandest of all Caesars. This plaster got my goat“, and left the academy after only two years, he met fellow artists who would have a long term influence on him.

Through them he had the opportunity to mix with the progressive minds of Brussels, discussing and debating all manner of contemporary issues. He immersed himself in romantic literature and was particularly attracted to the work of Edgar Allen Poe. He made numerous copies of works by famous masters appearing in art journals – such as Rembrandt, Durer, Goya, Daumier, Rubens and Turner.

Hi earlier works were relatively conventional, with many interior scenes including  paintings of his family, and landscapes of views from his window.  

Gradually he turned away from a realistic, objective view of the world towards a realm of the imaginary and fantastic.  

His mother ran a shop packed full of novelties, sea shells, and carnival items including masks and costumes. Ensor lived above the shop and progressively used these props, along with old clothes, and improvised models from them. With reproductions of art he admired, and a human skull perched on his easel, the sources for his fantasy work were in place. The space was cramped and encouraged up-close, detailed work and led him to develop a method for making large-scale drawings from pasted-together sheets of paper.


In 1883, together with these fellow students Willy Finch and Fernand Khnopff and others he  formed an avant-garde group called “Les XX” or “Les Vingt” (The Twenty),  a circle of painters whose goal was to promote new artistic developments throughout Europe. The group, which also saw itself as a revolutionary anarchist artist’s collective,  organised a salon that drew contemporary artists from across Europe, including Monet and Seurat. The group disbanded after 10 years.  

Examples of work from this period include The Scandalized Masks, 1883  and  Adam and Eve Expelled From Paradise, 1887.  

In 1888 Ensor completed his grandest epic, Christ’s Entry into Brussels.  In this painting his titular, ironic subject, the haloed figure of Christ at centre, who is both alone and engulfed by a mob, is virtually hidden from view. It is considered a self-portrait, and the painting’s prospective date,  suggests Ensor’s intent to cast himself as the true prophet of the art to come.

James Ensor, Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889, 1888
James Ensor, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, 1888

However,  Les Vingt repeatedly rejected his works and Ensor was acutely sensitive to what he saw as  this wholesale critical rejection of his art. He was described by many of his contemporaries as being irascible and aggressive. Nonetheless, he was recognised for his diversity of subject matter and great originality.  

After the turn of the century, Ensor finally won acclaim and respectability. He was knighted and given the title of Baron. The 1908 publication of a book about his life and works (Verhaeren, Emile; JAMES ENSOR) confirmed his standing and reputation at this time. In later years, he wrote music and designed sets for ballets. He continued to paint until his death at eighty-nine.

The information in this blog is largely sourced from Ulrike Becks-Malorny,  Ensor, Taschen, 2016 which I would highly recommend.

You might also enjoy reading my previous blog about Ensor:

James Ensor – Ensor with Flowered Hat

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’d like to see some of the  Australian artwork you’ll find in my gallery, scroll down to the bottom of the page. You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.


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