At the heart of symbolism

A non standard artist


Self-portrait of James Ensor as a stamp, 1974

Between Impressionism and Symbolism

Born of a British father and a Flemish mother in Ostend, James Ensor (1860-1949) grew up among shells, glass jewelleries, fusses, carnival masks and stuffed animals of the family shop. After an artistic initiation at the native town academy, he followed the courses at the fine arts academy in Brussels between 1877 and 1880. In the capital, he struck up a friendship with fellow students as Fernand Khnopff and intellectual anarchists. Back in Ostend, he took refuge in the family house attic where he created his first works.

Although challenging any classification, James Ensor is nevertheless at the junction of the Impressionist and Symbolist movements. He exhibited at the beginnings of his painting and etching career, notably at the Show of the XX in 1884, alongside artists to the peak of the first movement and to the birth of the second:

- By his studies of light and his bright colour palette, he is related to Impressionism, but he developed away from this by pushing light and colour to the extreme. He prefigured the Expressionism turmoil and the modern art advent just like his eldest Gustave Moreau.

- By his truths of life beyond appearances, he was one of the last comers in the Symbolist line. His canvasses are crammed with sarcastic representations of life and death against a background of masks and skeletons.

James Ensor was among the first, with Odilon Redon and Edvard Munch, to shake up the established values. However, his works only gave rise to sarcasm and lack of understanding, even among his colleagues, for many years. Ignored during his creative years, he became famous in his forties, when the man did nothing but surviving the artist.

Too solitary to have disciples, he nevertheless left a mark on the whole contemporary Belgian movement painting and a number of foreign painters.

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