Lot 191
  • 191

James Ensor

80,000 - 120,000 GBP
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  • James Ensor
  • Les ballerines
  • signed J. Ensor and dated 1908 (lower left)
  • oil on canvas
  • 73 by 86.5cm., 28 3/4 by 34in.


Herbert von Garvens-Garvensburg, Hanover
Robert Sostberg, Berlin
F. Liebhold, Berlin (probably)
Sam Salz, Brussels, Paris & New York
Gustave Van Geluwe, Brussels
R. Delhaye, Brussels
Samyn, Belgium
Acquired by the grandfather of the present owner in the 1940s


Hanover, Kestner-Gesellschaft, James Ensor. Künstler des Café du Dôme, 1919, no. 4 (titled as Pierrot und tanzende Masken)
Hanover, Galerie von Garvens, James Ensor. Paula Modersohn-Becker, Alt-Tibetanisches Kunstgewerbe, 1920, p. 6 (titled as Der Tanz)
Mannheim, Städtische Kunsthalle, James Ensor, 1928, no. 28 (probably)
Ostend, Galerie Studio, Exposition d'œuvres du Baron James Ensor, 1933, no. 11 (probably)
Brussels, Galerie Apollo, James Ensor, Peintures, Dessins, 1944-45, no. 4
Brussels, Galerie Georges Giroux, Hommage à James Ensor, 1945, no. 92
The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, Eretentoonstelling J. Ensor, 1949, no. 19b


Grégoire Le Roy, James Ensor, Brussels, 1922, illustrated p. 192 (titled as Danseuses and dated 1911)
Paul Haesaerts, James Ensor, New York, 1959, no. 170, illustrated p. 322
Xavier Tricot, James Ensor, Catalogue raisonné of the paintings, New York, 1992, vol. II, no. 417, illustrated p. 426
Xavier Tricot, James Ensor, Brussels, 2009, no. 433, illustrated p. 338


The canvas is not lined. There do not appear to be any signs of retouching visible under UV light examination. The canvas is slightly undulating and there are scattered flyspots. There are fine lines of craquelure to the thicker pigments, most prominently the white pigment. There are some artist's brush hairs to the lower right quadrant. Overall this work is in good condition.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Displaying an exquisite grace of style and subject matter, Les ballerines typifies the transitional style of James Ensor’s work of the 1890s. Although Ensor also painted another version of this scene, the present work is arguably the more vibrant of the two, displaying a superb clarity of line and colour. Les ballerines is a shift away from the realism that marked Ensor’s early career, yet dates from the period before he embraced the truly bizarre within his work. With his powerful and definitive brushstrokes heightening the vivacity of the dance, Ensor evokes tactility in both his execution of the scene and his highly assured painterly touch. The featured ballerinas are depicted with the same colour palette and strokes Ensor used to create the vibrant forest that engulfs them, thereby connecting the women to their surroundings. They remain unaware of the hidden viewer visible within the foreground, whose arm is extended towards the dancers as well as – seemingly – also towards the viewers, as though demonstrating a desire to draw the onlookers into the scene. The mask-like countenance of this mysterious figure anticipates the carnivals, masks, puppetry, and skeletons that would dominate Ensor’s mature work.

Innovative and distinctive, Ensor’s experimental style influenced a generation of twentieth century expressionist and surrealist painters. Ensor was trained at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels alongside Vincent van Gogh and Fernand Khnopff, but upon departure from the school his style rapidly took an increasingly surreal turn. Although much of his work was decried in the late nineteenth century as scandalous, art critic Eugène Demolder notes that Ensor’s paintings are 'masterpieces of prodigious and fantastical imagination' (Xavier Tricot, James Ensor, Catalogue raisonné of the paintings, New York, 1992, vol. II, p. 127).

We are grateful to Xavier Tricot for his assistance with the cataloguing of this lot.