James Ensor - Masks Confronting Death, 1888 (detail) - Image via arthistoryprojectcom arts exhibition museum collection

James Ensor /   James Sidney Edouard

Belgium 1860 - 1949


James Ensor
James Sidney Edouard
March 6, 2017
Andreja Velimirović is a passionate content writer with a knack for art and old movies. Majoring in art history, he is an expert on avant-garde modern movements and medieval church fresco decorations. Feel free to contact him via his Linkedin profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/andreja-velimirovi%C4%87-74068a68/

A vital figure in his local avant-garde scene and a valuable forerunner of 20th-century European Expressionism and Surrealism, James Ensor was a Belgian painter known for his grotesque and brightly colored depictions of masked skeletons, still lifes, allegorical scenes and carnivals. His surreal paintings explored autobiographical and social themes via a colorful style that featured some of the most subtly disturbing images his contemporary world has ever seen[1]. Ensor’s satirical pieces tackled heavy subject matters such as death, religion, politics and similar crucial aspects of our existence. Stylistically, his paintings are characterized by harsh colors and thick layers of oil paint. It should also be noted that James Ensor was an extremely talented Realist painter as well – the majority of his early career was dedicated to realistic depictions much different than those from his mature life.

James Ensor - The Man & the Mask in museum - Image via artnetcom
James Ensor – The Man & the Mask – Image via artnet.com

Relatively Slow Beginnings

James Sidney Edouard was born in the year of 1860 to parents James Frederic Ensor and Maria Catherina Haegheman. Although his father was quite an educated man, young Ensor had absolutely no interest in academic studies and left school at the age of fifteen in order to begin his artistic training with two local painters. Between the years of 1877 to 1880, he attended the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels where one of his fellow students was Fernand Khnopff. In 1881, James first exhibited his work to the public with modest success[2]. Never truly able to turn himself into a household name in the world of art, Ensor had his studio in the attic of his parents’ house until the year of 1917. Although he wanted to travel as much as possible, his journeys were quite sparse for the contemporary standards of rich young artists – by all accounts, Ensor had three brief trips to France and two to the Netherlands, as well as a four-day excursion to London in 1892.

James Ensor - Intrigue - Image via NYC museum
James Ensor – Intrigue – Image via royalacademy.org.uk

The Role of Music

During the late 19th century, almost every painting Ensor authored was rejected as scandalous either for its theme or quality, particularly his painting Christ’s Entry Into Brussels created in 1889. However, there were exhibition shows that continued to be interested in his art and James gradually won acceptance and acclaim. Interestingly, even in the first decade of the 20th century when he was at the height of his continental recognition, his production of new works was diminishing and he increasingly concentrated on music. James might not have had any formal musical training, but he was a gifted improviser on the harmonium and spent much of his time performing for visitors that came to see his works[3]. By the year of 1920, Ensor was a regular subject of major exhibitions across the Belgium.

James Ensor - The Despair of Pierrot in museum, 1892 - Image via pinterestcom
James Ensor – The Despair of Pierrot, 1892 – Image via pinterest.com

The Art of Masks

While his early works such as Russian Music (1881) and The Drunkards (1883) depicted realistic scenes in a somber style, his palette subsequently brightened and he favored increasingly bizarre subject matter. Many of his famous paintings featured grotesque masks inspired by the ones sold in his mother’s gift shop for Ostend’s annual Carnival. Such paintings as The Scandalized Masks (1883) and Skeletons Fighting over a Hanged Man (1891) started to symbolize what this artist wanted to show with his works – carnivals, masks, puppetry, skeletons and fantastic allegories that challenged many aspects of our societies.

Visit the royal collection of art on view in a museum arts exhibition for portrait photo
James Ensor – Christ’s Entry Into Brussels, 1889 – Image via wikiart.org

Mature Art and Later Life

Constantly turning more towards music, the second phase of James’ career was deemed as much less productive. The aggressive sarcasm and scatology that once characterized his work was much less evident in his few new compositions. In fact, much of his mature output consisted of mild repetitions of earlier works. In 1929, Ensor was named a Baron by King Albert and was the subject of the Belgian composer Flor Alpert’s James Ensor Suite. Furthermore, he was awarded the band of the Légion d’honneur in 1933. Against the advice of friends, James Ensor remained in Ostend during WWII despite the quite realistic risk of bombardment. Fortunately, the artist was able to survive in Ostend without having to run to Antwerp or Brussels. In his old age, James was an honored figure among Belgians that saw him as a symbol of how art was changed from its conceptual roots at the start of the century. His daily walks[4] made him a familiar sight in Ostend that embraced him as a local legend. Ensor died in this town after a short period of illness, passing away on the 19th of November in the year of 1949.

James Ensor loved masking his featured figures, giving them faces that would reveal their true inner selves rather than their outer, social ones that this artist truly despised

Royal Art museum in Antwerp has a huge portrait photo collection to visit and view
James Ensor – Masks Looking at a Tortoise, 1894 – Image via bp.com

The Uncompromising Visuals of James Ensor

Often deemed as too radical and extreme in both subject matter and method by his contemporaries, James Ensor was the master of using satire veiled in a colorful cloth that toyed with the viewers’ minds on many levels. And make no mistake – to be deemed as too extreme by the early 20th century avant-garde in Belgian was not a frequent occurrence. Unorthodoxly abandoning the usage of illusionism and one-point perspective to organize the pictorial composition[5], Ensor filled his paintings with disturbing content that seemed as if it was just about ready to escape the image and enter the viewer’s space. Ultimately, this artist’s subtle and furiously cynical social commentary was aimed at whatever Ensor wanted to criticize regardless of rules, social boundaries and consequences such a mocking could result in.


  1. Hostyn, N., James Ensor: Life and Work, Stichting Kunstboak (Acc); Mul edition, 2007
  2. Haesaerts, P., James Ensor, Abrams; First Edition, 1959
  3. Swinbourne, A., Canning, S., Draguet, M., Hoozee, R., Madeline, L., Todts, H., Panetta, J., James Ensor, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; First Edition, 2009
  4. Locke, A., Tricot, X., Todts, H., Vermeiren, G., Ensor, J., James Ensor, Royal Academy Publications, 2016
  5. Jacobson, T., Hashimoto, K., Hidden Worlds of James Ensor, Dubroni Press; 1st and Limited edition, 2014

Featured image: James Ensor – Masks Confronting Death, 1888 (detail) – Image via arthistoryproject.com
All images used for illustrative purposes only.

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2016Modernity à la belgeRoyal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels Group
201614-18. Rupture or Continuity?Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels Group
2016SommersonneMuseum Kunstpalast, Dusseldorf Group
2016Alfred Kubin Und Seine SammlungKunstforum Ostdeutsche Galerie (KOG), Regensburg Group
20163rd Biennale of Painting 2016Biennale of Painting, Zagreb Group
2015StilllebenGalerie Haas AG, Zurich Group
2015Stillleben. gestern und heute"Galerie Michael Haas, Berlin Group
2015Alfred Kubin Und Seine SammlungLandesgalerie am Oberösterreichischen Landesmuseum, Linz Group
2015How We Appear, and Where Life Takes Us 100 Years of the Town and 20 Years of the MuseumToyota Municipal Museum of Art, Toyota Aichi Group
2015Belgische Schone. Ensor Tot MagritteSinger Laren, Laren Group
2015I Belgi. Barbari E PoetiMACRO Museo d´Arte Contemporanea Roma, RomeGroup
2015Cranach und die ModerneStiftung Christliche Kunst Wittenberg, Lutherstadt Wittenberg Group
2015Jahrhundertzeichen. Tel Aviv Museum of Art visits BerlinMartin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin Group
2015In the Studio: PhotographsGagosian Gallery , New York City, NY Group
2015Spiegelingenvzw Cultuurcentrum De Steiger Menen, Menen Group
2014Temptation: The Demons of James EnsorThe Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL Solo
2014The Exceptional James EnsorThe Getty Center, Los Angeles, CA Solo
2014Die überraschten Masken: James EnsorKunstmuseum Basel, Basel Solo
2014Bilderwahl! Monolithic WaterKunsthaus Zürich, Zurich Group
2014Von 1900 bis heuteVon der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal Group
2014Signes des temps. Oeuvres visionnaires d'avant 1914Beaux-Arts Mons (BAM), Mons Group
2014Bruxelles, une capitale impressionnisteMusée des Impressionnismes Giverny, Giverny Group
2014Paul Delvaux and Modern Belgian ArtYamazaki Mazak Museum of Art, Nagoya Group
2014Playgrounds. Reinventing the SquareMuseo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid Group
2013Everything and MoreTim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp Group
2013Salon der AngstMuseumsquartier, Vienna Group
2013Baza(A)R Belg(I)ËCENTRALE for contemporary art, Brussels Group
2013Gestochen scharf. Von Dürer bis KirkebyStädtisches Museum Zwickau, Zwickau Group
2013Rien Faire Et Laisser RireGalerie Rodolphe Janssen, Brussels Group
2013Les Trois GrâcesGalerie Chantal Crousel, Paris Group
2013I Love You ... Me No MoreMUba Eugène Leroy, Tourcoing Group
2012James Ensor in Context. Ensor and the History of European Art from the Collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts AntweIwate Museum of Art, Morioka Solo
2012Scènes de la vie du Christ and other worksBates College Museum of Arts, Lewiston, ME Solo
2012James Ensor (1860-1949) – A Selection From The Art Collection Of Kbc Bank, Budapest Solo
2012El factor grotescoMuseo Picasso Málaga, Málaga Group
2012Die Erfindung des JenseitsResidenzgalerie Salzburg, Salzburg Group
2012Une collection privéeGALERIE BRUN LEGLISE, Paris Group
2012Topsy Turvyde Appel Boys' School, Amsterdam Group
2012Atelier + KücheMARTa Herford, Herford Group
2012KamaramaGalerie De Zwarte Panter, Antwerp Group
2012Dreams of Nature. Symbolism from Van Gogh to KandinskyVan Gogh Museum, Amsterdam Group
2011James EnsorGemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague Solo
2011Night Scented StockMarianne Boesky Gallery, New York City, NY Group
2011WintertuinBonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht Group
2011SurveyorAlbright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY Group
2011Tous cannibalesLa Maison Rouge, Paris Group
2010La belleza de lo grotescoFundación Carlos de Amberes, Madrid Solo
2010James EnsorMusée National d'Histoire et d'Art, Luxembourg Solo
2010Bij Ensor op bezoekMuseum voor Moderne Kunst, Oostende Solo
2010Impressionist GardensMuseo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid Group
2010November BluesHachmeister Galerie, Münster Group
2010The weighty bodyMuseum Dr. Guislain, Ghent Group
2010De Dürer à Jan Fabre. Chefs-d’œuvreMusée d'Ixelles, Brussels Group
2010Dancing Towards Death: The Richard Harris CollectionFigge Art Museum, Davenport, IA Group
2010Happy EndKunsthalle Göppingen, Göppingen Group
2010Teddybär und DamenschuhKunstmuseum Basel, Basel Group
2010Belgian ArtSEM-ART Gallery, Monaco Group
2010All art has been contemporaryHamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg Group
2010James Ensor and Georg Baselitz: Graphic WorksSeattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA Group
2010Alfred Kubin & sein KreisStadtgalerie Klagenfurt, Klagenfurt Group
2010Bij Ensor op bezoekKunstmuseum Aan Zee, Oostende Group
2010The Darker Side of Light: Arts of Privacy, 1850–1900Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, ILGroup
2009James EnsorMusée d´Orsay, Paris Solo
2009James Ensor: L' oeuvre gravéBenaki Museum, Athens Solo
2009James EnsorMuseum of Modern Art, New York City, NY Solo
2009A modern art precursorEibank Gallery, Sofia Solo
2008James EnsorVon der Heydt Kunsthalle, Wuppertal Solo
2008James Ensor: Schrecken ohne EndeVon der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal Solo
2007Masquerade: the work of James EnsorLady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight Solo
2007James Ensor: PaintingsPeter Freeman, Inc., New York City, NY Solo
2006James EnsorFries Museum, Leeuwarden Solo
2006Ensor's Graphic ModernismThe Getty Center, Los Angeles, CA Solo
2005James EnsorSchirn Kunsthalle, FrankfurtSolo
2005James EnsorMie Prefectural Art Museum, Tsu City Solo
2005James Ensor: Radierungen aus der Sammlung Hegewisch und dem KupferstichkabinettHamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg Solo
2004James Ensor: Kathedralen, Triumphe, komische Teufel und neckische MaskenKunstverein Herford, Herford Solo
2004Bitte nehmen Sie Platz, Herr Ensor!MARTa Herford, Herford Solo
2004James Ensor: BestandsausstellungSprengel Museum Hannover, Hannover Solo
2003James Ensor: Vision und AufruhrQuadrat Bottrop, Josef Albers Museum, Bottrop Solo
2002James Ensor (1860–1945). Prints and PaintingsInternational Cultural Centre and Międzynarodowe Centrum Kultury, Krakow Solo
2002James Ensor: vizionář modernostiGalerie výtvarného umění v Chebu and Gallery of Visual Art in Cheb, Cheb Solo
2001James EnsorTokyo Station Gallery, Tokyo Solo
2001Between Street and Mirror: The Drawings of James EnsorThe Drawing Center, New York City, NY Solo
2000James EnsorFaggionato Fine Arts, London Solo
2000James Ensor: Visionär der ModernePanorama Museum, Bad Frankenhausen Solo
1999James EnsorMuseo d'Arte di Lugano, Lugano Solo
1999James Ensor Visionär der ModerneHachmeister Galerie, Münster Solo
1999James EnsorThe Nagoya City Art Museum, Nagoya Solo
1993James EnsorVilla Wessel, Iserlohn Solo
1989James EnsorKunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich Solo
1986James EnsorKunstverein in Hamburg, Hamburg Solo
1986Ensor: l'oeuvre gravéMusée d’Art Moderne de Troyes, Troyes Solo
1986Ensor: l'oeuvre gravéMusée du dessin et de l'estampe originale de Gravelines, Gravelines Solo
1984James EnsorThe Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura, Kamakura Solo
1983James EnsorKunsthaus Zürich, Zurich Solo
1978James EnsorNassauischer Kunstverein, Wiesbaden Solo
1976James EnsorThe Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL Solo
1973James Ensor: Prints and Drawings from the Collection of the Municipal Museum, OstendeMusée des beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa, ON Solo
1972James EnsorThe Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura, Kamakura Solo
1972Ensor ein Maler aus dem späten 19. JahrhundertWürttembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart Solo
1967Prints and Drawings by James EnsorThe Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL Solo
1963James EnsorWestfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte Münster, Münster Solo
1960James Ensor: die Radierungen. Sammlung Madame Charles Franck AntwerpenMuseum Ostwall im Dortmunder U, Dortmund Solo
1956James EnsorGalerie nächst St. Stephan, Rosemarie Schwarzwälder, Vienna Solo
1952Prints by James EnsorThe Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL Solo
1951James EnsorSaint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, MO Solo
1951Work of James EnsorThe Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH Solo
1932James EnsorKunstverein in Hamburg, Hamburg Solo
1928James EnsorStädtische Kunsthalle Mannheim, Mannheim Solo