James Sidney Ensor (1860 – 1949) was the son of English and Belgian parents. Although he lived in Ostend until his death, he regularly stayed in Brussels and actively participated in the artistic life of the capital city. With the exception of a few excursions to London, Holland and Paris, Ensor scarcely traveled.
In 1881, he debuted with the progressive Brussels art circle, La Chrysalide. He quickly became recognized by friend and enemy alike as one of the prominent artists of the time. His seascapes, still lifes, naturalistic figure pieces and tableaux from the life of the young, modern bourgeois woman, such as the celebrated The Oyster-eater from 1882, unquestionably belong to the major works of the European Realism and plein aire movements.
In 1883 Ensor, along with a few older students of the Brussels‘ academy, would take leave of the artists‘ association L’Essor. They established the artists‘ association Les Vingt. This will play an important role in the dissemination of various international avant-garde movements.
Between 1885 and 1888, Ensor‘s attention went chiefly to drawing and etching. Under the influence of Rembrandt, Redon, Goya, Japanese woodcuts, Brueghelian images and contemporary spoofs, Ensor developed a highly personal iconography and design. He rejected French Impressionism and Symbolism and lent himself to the expressive qualities of light, line, color and the grotesque and macabre motifs such as carnival masks and skeletons, which he rendered in massive tableaux such as in the series The Aureoles of Christ or The Sensibilities of Light (1885-1886). These grotesque metamorphoses culminate in Ensor‘s most well-known and monumental mask tableau: The Entry of Christ into Brussels (1888-1889, oil on canvas, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum).
Ensor‘s artistic rejuvenation was noticed by German artists and critics around 1900. Alfred Kubin, Paul Klee, Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Georg Grosz, Herbert von Garvens-Garvensburg or Wilhem Fraenger understood that ‘le peintre des masks‘ (the painting of masks) radically broke with the classical West-European artistic values and traditions. He was recognized in Belgium as one of the pioneers of Modern Art.
[Herwig Todts, contributions by Cathérine Verleysen and Robert Hoozee]