Museum researchers uncover James Ensor at work


Project uses X-rays and ultraviolet light to peek beneath layers of paint in Ostend artist’s work to give a glimpse of the creative process

A change of perception

James Ensor, the son of an English father and a Flemish mother, is one of Flanders’ most important modern painters. Predating Expressionism with his untameable fascination for the extreme and grotesque, he influenced generations of later artists. In Ostend – where he spent most of his life – he is still remembered today by the great-grandchildren of his local friends as “the man with the long, black coat”.

Despite Ensor having worked only in Ostend and Brussels, the world’s largest and most prestigious collection of his works can be found in Antwerp. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA) boasts 38 paintings and more than 600 drawings by the master. Based on this collection, KMSKA conservator and Ensor specialist Herwig Todts is now leading the Ensor Research Project: a unique multidisciplinary venture with the aim of reconstructing not the works of the artist, but the artist at work.

“We want to look into Ensor’s creative process,” says Todts, “through sound theoretical work – a thorough study of Ensor’s texts and letters – but also through material and technical research, using X-ray beams, infrared and ultraviolet light to see what’s hidden underneath the layers of paint.”

With these methods, the team can trace carbon drawings on the canvas from before the artist started painting, as well as other previously painted images hidden under the final coat of paint. They can also detect the specific kinds of pigments Ensor used – chemical ones from the 19th century or organic ones from the 20th.

“Combined with the information we get from his sketchbooks and other works, we want to recreate – concretely – which steps Ensor took from a cursory idea or a scribble on a piece of paper to the completion of a work,” Todts explains.

To better understand what exactly happened inside Ensor’s head during the creative buzz, Todts is also planning on involving creative artists during a later phase of the research. “We are now examining the scans. But as much as I want to consult other specialists on our findings, I’d also like to involve artists in the process. I’d ask them: How would you take these kinds of decisions? I think we can learn a great deal from that.”

Recycling canvases

This is not the first time KMSKA has embarked on a project of this kind. In 2007, it launched similar research into the creative process of the Flemish baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens. While Todts describes the Ensor project as “fairly unique”, he also points to the fact that museums all around the world nowadays seem to be “under the spell of artists’ creative processes”.

Imaging techniques have considerably improved in recent years and have opened up new possibilities in research

- Herwig Todts

In Amsterdam, an exhibition about Van Gogh’s way of working has just finished, while at the Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag, a show on Piet Mondriaan’s methods is now on. “Imaging techniques have considerably improved in recent years and have opened up new possibilities in research; that must be the reason behind the success,” Todts says.

Even though the Ensor research is still in progress, the team’s most important findings are regularly published on the project’s website. “For instance, we discovered that in 1880, when Ensor moved from Brussels back to his parents’ house in Ostend, he started recycling used canvases from the time when he was a student. Studies for nudes made way for still lifes,” Todts explains.

“In 1896 he finished a small work depicting a skeleton, a painter with a skull standing at his easel (pictured). The skeleton is in a studio that we know from pictures is Ensor’s own studio. On the infrared image we  discovered that under the skull there’s a self-portrait. The artist decided to change his self-portrait into a skull.”  

This might sound strange and gruesome, but according to Todts it’s not. “Ensor has fallen victim to too much speculation,” he says, “because of his love for skulls and masks. In the past, many thought he did this because he was feeling undervalued as an artist, that in some way he transformed his fear of loss of creativity and underestimation into a fear of death.

“With this research, we want to stay closer to the facts. We really hope we can get rid of this easy, romantic image of the underappreciated artist expressing his frustrations in grotesque paintings of skulls and masks.”

It is too early to draw any new conclusions about the artist’s personality, but based on the study of letters and texts Todts can already say that “the one-sided image of the frustrated, romantic artist doesn’t hold true. We need to focus more on the humour in his work. Ensor was said to be a deadpan jokester.”

Photo: The Skeleton Painter, 1896,  LukasArt in Flanders, Hugo Maertens (c) Sabam