The old man by the sea


A strange old man with a big white beard, smelling slightly of the sea, will follow you around Flanders this year. It is 150 years since the painter James Ensor was born, and he is everywhere.

Patrick Florizoone, James Ensor Archief, Gent/Photo: Fernand Nayaert
Patrick Florizoone, James Ensor Archief, Gent/Photo: Fernand Nayaert

It’s the 150th birthday of Ostend’s beloved son

A strange old man with a big white beard, smelling slightly of the sea, will follow you around Flanders this year. It is 150 years since the painter James Ensor was born, and he is everywhere.

His birthplace, Ostend, has made him the figurehead of its year as Flemish City of Culture, with a massive exhibition at MuZee examining his life, work and links with the town. In the autumn, Bozar brings the extensive collection of Ensor's work from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp to the ING Cultural Centre in Brussels. At the same time, Ghent's museums of fine arts (MSK) and contemporary arts (SMAK) will look at his impact on artists in the 20th century.

For its part, Ostend is fully justified in making such a strong claim on Ensor. Apart from three years at art academy in Brussels, the painter spent the whole of his long life in the coastal town. He was born there on 13 April, 1860. His father was also James, a Briton born in Brussels, who met his future wife in Ostend while on holiday with his parents.

She was Marie Haegheman, whose family was in the souvenir trade, so James the future painter grew up among model sailing ships, sea shells and other oddities and trinkets. Writing decades later, Ensor said that being near these marvels, with their luminous opulence, helped turn him into a painter in love with colour and the dazzling effects of light. It would be fresh in his mind, since he was still living above the family shell shop at the time.

That shop was part of a large building on the corner of Vlaanderenstraat and Van Iseghemlaan. The young Ensor had a studio under the attic with a magnificent view over the town and the countryside to the south. It was here that he retreated after returning from Brussels, to paint seascapes, still lifes and portraits, either of local working people or his family in their natural drawing-room habitat.

From sea light to inner darkness

Ensor’s big idea was to explore light and its effects, which led critics then and ever after to connect his work with the emerging French Impressionists. This only angered Ensor, who thought he was doing something more profound and more subtle than these “plein air hacks who are so fond of pale colours”.

Works now considered high-points in his development, such as “The Oyster Eater” (1882), were rejected by Belgian salons. Ensor responded in 1883 by co-founding Les XX, or The Twenty, an avant-garde art society whose annual exhibitions provided a showcase for his work as well as that of Flemish contemporaries such as Théo van Rysselberghe and Fernand Khnopff. More importantly, it invited international avantgardists to Brussels, such as Claude Monet, Georges Seurat and Paul Gauguin.

Ensor's interest in naturalism took a mystical turn in the mid-1880s, notably with the series “The Haloes of Christ or the Sensitivities of Light”. These enormous drawings, presented as completed works rather than preliminary sketches, did not receive the acclaim that Ensor had hoped for when they were shown at the Salon des XX in 1887. Instead, everyone was talking about Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte”, which hung nearby.

At the same time, Ensor's father died, and death took on a more prominent role in his work. Skulls and complete skeletons start to take centre stage, and, together with the carnival and other masks that had appeared in his work some years before, they became his trademark. These grotesque images developed into a private mythology with strong elements of caricature and farce. It is now that the iconic works start to appear, such as the monumental “Christ’s Entry into Brussels” (1888) and “Doctrinaire Nourishment” (1889), with the Belgian king and other authority figures emptying their bowels onto the people.

Other themes recur in Ensor's work, particularly Ensor himself. There are more than 100 self-portraits, from romantic early versions – young, dashing and playful – to darker visions later on that were either grim or mocking. One of the most famous, “Self-portrait with Flowered Hat” (1883-1888), is currently on show at the Ensor House in Ostend (see opposite).

Influential maverick

Rejected by (and rejecting) the art establishment, Ensor continued to plough his own furrow in Ostend, still living above the family shop. But his work was seen and slowly began to gain a reputation. By the turn of the century, museums were starting to acquire his paintings and young artists, particularly the German expressionists, began to beat a path to his door. Official recognition at home and abroad came in the inter-war years, and in 1929 he was made a baron by the Belgian king.

By this time Ensor had moved house, just a few doors down the street to Vlaanderenstraat 27 and another shell shop which would be his home until his death in 1949. He continued to work, painting and drawing, but concentrating increasingly on music. His influence on Belgian artists was considerable, from expressionists such as Constant Permeke, Frits van den Berghe and Léon Spilliaert, to Cobra artists such as Pierre Alechinsky and other individualists like Paul Delvaux and Roger Raveel.

Ensor's reputation now has many facets, depending in where you stand. Staging a major exhibition of his work earlier this year, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris observed that in Brussels or Antwerp he is seen as an innovative and tortured Belgian painter, while in Paris he is a 19th-century artist poised between naturalism and modernity. Yet on the other side of the Atlantic, at New York's Museum of Modern Art, he fits naturally into the great avant-garde movements. This year is a unique chance to see all of these aspects of Ensor in his home country.

Who is Ensor?
That depends on where you stand
Antwerp: innovative and tortured
Paris: poised between naturalism and modernity
New York: purely avant-garde

Happy Birthday, James
James Ensor's birthday is on Tuesday, 13 April, and everyone is invited for cake and coffee on  omestraat near the MuZee at 15.00. The cake is inspired by the work of Ensor, with masks of chocolate and marzipan. For more Ensor commemorations this month, visit

Is Mr Ensor at home?
A show at Ostend's MuZee visits the visitors of the Flemish painte

There are two easy ways to visit Ensor in Ostend. One is to drop by his house at Vlaanderenstraat 27, now turned into the Ensor House museum. The other is to go to MuZee on Romestraat, where the concept of visiting Ensor has been shaped into an exhibition exploring his life, work and links with the town. Central to both is the Blue Room, the upstairs sitting room in Vlaanderenstraat where Ensor used to receive visitors, paint and play the harmonium. The instrument is still there, the fabric of its pedals worn away and the scallop-shell stool highly polished with use. (The irreverent Ensor would probably appreciate the idea that the most tangible reminder of his presence in the room was produced by his backside.)

The rest of the furniture is also said to be authentic, along with the masks and other relics scattered around the room. The paintings, however, are all reproductions, including the huge "Christ's Entry into Brussels" which hangs behind the harmonium (the original long spirited away to The Getty Center in Los Angeles). The exception is in a small sitting room next door, where the "Self-Portrait with Flowered Hat" is making a rare visit from its usual home in the MuZee. A visitor in his own house, Ensor's eyes follow you around the room in traditional fashion, wondering what has become of the old place.

On the ground floor the theme of the marine souvenir shop has been preserved, with dried puffer fish hanging from the ceiling and seaweed and coral nestling among the post cards. Ensor is now part of the merchandise, but then, even during his lifetime he had become a sort of relic to attract artistically minded tourists. Some visitors would even be given a personal introduction to a bust of the artist in the town's Leopoldpark.

As is the way with such modest museums, when all but the brica- brac has been spirited away to more prestigious locations, the Ensor House has a slightly sad air. But then it also suggests something about the way he lived outside the artistic mainstream for most of his life, brooding behind the curtains, convinced of his own genius.

Ensor and friends

At MuZee, a city and provincial museum, a whole floor has been converted into a vast blue sitting room, complete with sofas, bookcases and tables. Central is a towering funeral arrangement of black paper flowers, surrounded by photographs of Ensor, overlooked by a tapestry version of "Christ's Entry into Brussels".

In sections on either side are projections of films shot in Ostend during the 1930s by local director Henri Storck, each with a glimpse of Ensor and lots of atmosphere from the town when it was still an important resort. The beach theme is picked up in Ensor's "The Ostend Baths" (1890), which is among the large number of paintings, sketches and etchings on the walls.

While many of the iconic works are missing, the broad selection is still a good introduction to Ensor's obsessions and his range as an artist. Highlights include the large, atmospheric seascape "Grand Marine - Sunset" (1885), "The Vengeance of Hop-Frog" (1898) from a tale by Edgar Allen Poe, and the spooky "Masks Watching a Tortoise" (1894).

Among the relics, there's a copy of Mallarmé's poems illustrated by Félicien Rops, to which Ensor has added his own sketches. Further on, the museum has cheekily combined Ensor's tiny etching "My Portrait in 1960" (1888), in which the artist is evidently just a pile of bones, with Rops' large canvas "Death at the Ball" (c1865-75), with its capering, costumed skeleton.

Ensor's detailed etchings are always a surprise when seen alongside the cruder paintings, and there is a particularly fine "View of Mariakerk" (1887) on show. The church, Our Lady of the Dunes, is also where the artist is buried, and, although now hemmed in with buildings, it is still a charming place. To visit, walk along the front or take the coastal tram to Ravelingen.

Continuing the theme of visiting Ensor, the exhibition also includes a waiting room full of work by the various artists who came to pay homage in the artist's later years. On the face of it, this is a rather random selection, including drawing room scenes, still lifes, views of Ostend, self-portraits and images of Ensor. Yet the more you look, the more it builds into the feeling of a visit, from the heavy bourgeois interior to the distractions of gazing at the sea or sketching the artist's sister, before you are admitted to the presence in the blue sitting room.

And looking at it from Ensor's point of view, what would you make of opening the door to find Leon Spilliaert, Jean Brusselmans or Maurice de Vlaminck on your sofa, as they saw themselves? Scary stuff.

Bij Ensor op bezoek (Visiting Ensor)
MuZee, Romestraat 11, Ostend
until 29 August

Ensor Revealed
ING Cultural Centre, Koningsplein 6, Brussels
7 October to 13 February

Ensor and Contemporary Art
MSK and SMAK, Citadel Park, Ghent
16 October to 13 February

The old man by the sea

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