Impressionist & Modern Art

James Ensor: The Man & the Mask

By Jeanne Calmont

F or the past twenty-five years a comedy played by petulant masks and a skeleton wearing a black fur, has been without an audience. Painted in Ostend in 1891 where the canvas has remained in the same family, Squelette arrêtant masques (Skeleton stopping the Masks) has been revealed, and is the major highlight of the upcoming Impressionist & Modern Art sale in Paris on 7 December. 

Considered by the Ensor Advisory Committee as the most important rediscovery of the artist's works since its creation in 2002, Squelette arrêtant masques is extraordinarily fresh: the brightness of the colours has been utterly preserved by the fact the work has been hidden from public view for so long. Beyond its undeniable chromatic and artistic qualities, this painting adds an new indispensable element to the reading of Ensor's greatest years.


As grotesque as it is dramatic, the scene of Squelette arrêtant masques reaches an unprecedented level of starkness, legibility and even realism. Beneath a pink and blue maelstrom, this work is one of the most striking paintings from the period when Ensor’s creative power had reached a decisive stage. It retains a mysterious quality to this day, perhaps best exemplified by the red ace of spades that accompanies the painter's signature.


Ensor studied at the Fine Arts Academy of Brussels from 1877 to 1880. During his early training, from which he retained a profound disgust for academia in all its forms, Ensor frequented the progressive salon of the Rousseau family. (Ernest Rousseau would be appointed rector of the Free University of Brussels after the 1891 crisis — a rebellion at the (ULB) which saw bitter clashes between religious students and atheist factions, which tended to be those with scientific interests). Squelette arrêtant masques is a complex work, and its subject could refer to this precise event. The unpopular rector brought in the police against the hot-headed and exasperated students demonstrating for the freedom of science. Close to the mostly liberal and left wing intellectuals, it is very probable that Ensor, a rebel at heart, was motivated to take position. 


In 1880, Ensor returned to Ostend, a small coastal village that had become a beach resort on the initiative of the first Belgian king, Léopold the 1st. From then on, Ensor left this town only on rare occasions, and his life followed the rhythm of the bathing seasons and the festivities of the Carnival. In 1889, it was in the studio situated on the corner of the rue de Flandre and the boulevard Van Iseghem that Ensor completed L'Entrée du Christ à Bruxelles. The painting was presented the following year in the salon of Les XX. In 1887 however, in face of the prevailing rising enthusiasm for neo-impressionism, Ensor, who was seen as the leading figure, drew away from the group. The same year, the artist lost his father, the only man in the family, and the only one who morally supported his choice of an artistic career, and his maternal grandmother, a strongly eccentric source of inspiration. 


Death makes its grandiloquent entrance into his work, bearing the features of the figure of Christ, advancing triumphantly into the city, before receiving the insults of his peers. In 1891, the year of Squelette arrêtant masques, this process of martyrdom reached a peak in L'homme de douleur (Man of Pain) where the identification with Christ is devoid of all ambiguity, expressing the suffering of miscomprehension. This work verifies the theory that from the beginning of the 1890s, Ensor was as obsessed with death as he was by the sea, by masks and by himself, painted himself as a skeleton. A photograph taken in 1891 of Ensor in a hussar uniform, playing out a both humorous and disturbing comedy with Rousseau’s son and other members of the family, tends to confirm this.


This would not be the first time that Ensor, who liked to experiment with different mediums, often using photography as a source for his self-portraits. Two of these skeleton portraits, an etching of 1889, Mon portrait squelettisé (My Skeletonised Portrait), and a canvas of 1896-1897, Squelette peintre (Skeleton Painter) were directly inspired by them. In 1889, a painting as famous as Ensor aux masques (Ensor with Masks) announced the ultimate disguise where the artist abandoned himself: that of his own role and of self-quotation. Well before, in 1891, in the middle of this blessed period where every painting of Ensor was a hallucinated epiphany, Squelette arrêtant masques was the disguised self-portrait that was missing.  


Around the Ensor-skeleton, seven colourful masks evolve in a symbiotic relationship while at the same time playing a mysterious masquerade. A woman with a big white nose who is not embraced but spurned by the hussar, a pierrot just as white, a jeering, red-faced clown, a salacious veteran, a face with blue eyeballs and an old devil have arranged to meet. The masked ball takes place in the foreground. Horizontal and concentrated in the first plane that occupies half of the canvas, the composition of Squelette arrêtant masques evokes that of a contemporary work L'Intrigue (1890). At the time, Ensor frequented show halls (in particular the Royal theatre in Brussels), veritable reservoirs of social satire. But Ensor's passion for masks had a previous and much more visceral origin.

The primordial masks were that of his grandparents shop (his uncle also had a similar kind of trade in another street in Ostend) which was then run by the painter's mother: "My mother, daughter to shellfish traders in Ostend, continued her parents trade and I spent my childhood in the paternal shop, surrounded by the splendours of pearly shells with a thousand, iridescent reflections and strange skeletons, monsters and marine plants" (James Ensor, October 28, 1899). From this baroque childhood where shells had the same reflections as the decoration of certain masks, dates Ensor's incomparable capacity to mingle fiction and reality. Deprived of superfluous accessories, the figures differ from each other in the multi-coloured characteristics of their finery. Captured at mid-waist, they stand out against one of the most beautiful pieces of sky painted by Ensor.



Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's