Obelisk Art History
The Artists

James Ensor
Grim fandango

James Ensor, The Artists
Portrait of James Ensor

James Ensor painted with a skull propped on his easel. Ensor was a classically trained painter — graduating at age 20 from the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, but his work immediately and powerfully swerved nasty. While contemporary painters like Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted girls practicing piano, and Cézanne meditated on apples and pears, James Ensor painted skeletons fighting over the corpse of a hanged man.

Ensor’s work is scary even now almost seventy years after his death. Livid colors, grotesque expressions, and unstable composition — and those damn masks, always with the masks.

Ensor is a tough personality to read. He lived and worked in the attic of his parent’s home in Brussels, so it’s tempting to label him a shut-in. But in 1883 he co-founded the Les XX, a liberal art collective of twenty Belgian artists. Les XX held an annual show, where Ensor exhibited alongside artists like , Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, and Vincent van Gogh. This social and national exposure hardly seems like the behavior of a hermit, and later in his life Ensor would take to giving public speeches introducing artists and writers for exhibition openings.

It’s these public addresses that hint at the motivation behind Ensor’s wild, crude and alarming work. MOMA curator Anna Swinbourne describes Ensor as having a ‘wicked sense of humor’ and a ‘deep interest in carnival and performance’ — and there it is. James Ensor loved to entertain, to shock, horrify, confound. He cross-dresses in self portraits, paints kings shitting on the commoners, and the human heads served for dinner — all with morbid grin of his favorite skull.


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Reed Enger, "James Ensor, Grim fandango," in Obelisk Art History, Published May 25, 2016; last modified July 10, 2019, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/james-ensor/.

James Ensor was a Belgian artist born on April 13, 1860. Ensor contributed to the Expressionist movement and died on November 19, 1949.

Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889, James Ensor

Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889 1888

The Assassination, James Ensor

The Assassination 1890

The Intrigue, James Ensor

The Intrigue 1890

Man of Sorrows, James Ensor

Man of Sorrows 1891

Skeletons Fighting over a Hanged Man, James Ensor

Skeletons Fighting over a Hanged Man 1891

The Frightful Musicians, James Ensor

The Frightful Musicians 1891

The Bad Doctors, James Ensor

The Bad Doctors 1892

The Despair of Pierrot, James Ensor

The Despair of Pierrot 1892

The Dangerous Cooks, James Ensor

The Dangerous Cooks 1896

The Skeleton Painter, James Ensor

The Skeleton Painter 1896

Comical Repast (Banquet of the Starved), James Ensor

Comical Repast (Banquet of the Starved) 1917 – 1918

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