Lot 19
  • 19

James Ensor

3,000,000 - 5,000,000 USD
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  • James Ensor
  • Les Poissardes mélancoliques
  • Signed Ensor and dated 1892 (lower right)
  • Oil on canvas
  • 43 1/4 by 31 3/4 in.
  • 110 by 80.5 cm


Félix Buelens, Ostend (acquired by 1908)

François Franck, Antwerp

Charles Franck, Antwerp (acquired from the above by 1922)

Paul Colin, Brussels (sold: Galerie Georges Giroux, Brussels, Paul Colin, November 27, 1948, lot 237)

Max Motte, Brussels

Mrs. Ann Burnett Tandy, Fort Worth (sold by her estate: Sotheby’s, New York, November 5, 1981, lot 209)

Acquired at the above sale


Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Exposition Centennale de l’Art Belge, 1913

Antwerp, Cercle Royal Artistique et Littéraire, Selection, 1920, no. 72

Brussels, Galerie Georges Giroux, James Ensor, 1920, no. 13

Antwerp, Kunst van Heden – L’Art Contemporain, 1921, no. 58

Venice, XIV Exposizione Internazionale della Citta di Venezia, 1924, no. 1300

Paris, Galerie Barbazanges, James Ensor, 1926

Hannover, Kestner-Gesellschaft, James Ensor, 1927, no. 34

Dresden, Galerie Neue Kunst Fides, James Ensor, 1927

Berlin, Galerie Paul Cassirer, James Ensor, 1927

Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Retrospective James Ensor, 1929, no. 203

Paris, Musée du Jeu de Paume, L’oeuvre de James Ensor, 1932, no. 67

Antwerp, Kunst van Heden – L’Art Contemporain, 1940, no. 29

Venice, XXIV Biennale Internazionale d’Arte di Venezia, 1948, no. 441

Boitsfort, Maison Haute, Cinquième Salon: James Ensor, 1950, no. 24

Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Retrospective James Ensor, 1951, no. 101

New York, Museum of Modern Art; Boston, Institute of Contemporary Art; The Cleveland Museum of Art; Zurich, Kunsthaus Zürich, James Ensor, 1983, no. 87, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, James Ensor, 1983, no. 93, illustrated in the catalogue

Hyogo, Museum of Modern Art; Kamakura, Museum of Modern Art; Miyagi, Miyagi Museum of Art & Saitama, Museum of Modern Art, James Ensor, 1983–1984, no. 3, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Paris, Musée du Petit Palais, James Ensor, 1990, no. 182, illustrated in color in the catalogue

London, Royal Academy of Arts, Impressionism to Symbolism, the Belgian Avant Garde 1880–1900, 1994, no. 19, illustrated in color in the catalogue

London, Barbican Art Gallery, James Ensor, 1997, no. 39

Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Ensor, 1999–2000, no. 119

New York, The Museum of Modern Art, James Ensor, 2009, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, 1997-2015 (on loan)


Emile Verhaeren, James Ensor, Brussels, 1908, mentioned p. 117

Gregoire Le Roy, James Ensor, Brussels & Paris, 1922, illustrated p. 128

Paul Fierens, James Ensor, Paris, 1929, illustrated pl. 28

André de Ridder, James Ensor, Paris, 1930, illustrated pl. 35

Lucien Schwob, Ensor, Brussels, 1936, illustrated pl. XL

Julio E. Payro, James Ensor, Buenos Aires, 1943, illustrated pl. 38

Paul Fierens, James Ensor, Paris, 1943, illustrated p. 89

Paul Haesaerts, James Ensor, 1958, no. 290, illustrated in color p. 186

Roger van Gindertael, James Ensor, 1975, no. 101, illustrated p. 155

Xavier Tricot, James Ensor, Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, 1875–1902, Antwerp, 1992, vol. I, no. 343, illustrated p. 331

Michel Draguet, James Ensor ou la fantasmagorie, Paris, 1999, no. 173, illustrated p. 160

Xavier Tricot, James Ensor, Ostfildern, 2009, no. 356, illustrated in color p. 317

Catalogue Note

Ensor's fascinating Les Poissardes mélancoliques is widely-regarded to be among his most successful compositions.   His most unusual pictures, including the present work, paved the way for the Expressionist and Surrealist movements that would dominate the avant-garde during the first half of the 20th century. Ensor's pioneering style called attention to the uncanny, upended traditional expectations of portraiture, and recast many time-honored narratives so that they were applicable for the modern age.  In pursuit of subjects for his art, he saw the otherwise mundane experiences of life and its constituent items as a constant source of inspiration. Few paintings show this mindset quite as vividly as the present work. As Ensor himself said, "Everything is a matter for painting, everything is good enough to be painted, everything is beautiful enough to be painted" (quoted in Paul Haesaerts, James Ensor, New York, 1959, p. 94).

In depicting this scene of two dour fishmongers and the sundry objects of their shop, Ensor shows a strange fascination with the artifacts of quotidian life in Ostende.  As a child, Ensor was endlessly fascinated with the ornaments of his grandmother's souvenir shop in the city, and the images of these curios often appeared in his composition.  “My grandparents had in Ostend… a shop selling sea shells, lace, rare stuffed fish, old books, prints, jams, china, an inextricable assortment of objects constantly being knocked over by cats, noisy parrots and a monkey,” Ensor once recalled.  “This exceptional milieu without doubt developed my artistic faculties and my grandmother was my great inspiration” (quoted in P. Berman, Ensor, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, p. 6).

The painterly and mannered approach to his work makes the otherwise mundane objects come alive in a bold and color-filled composition. Ensor often arranged compositions on the mantle of his fireplace, carefully selecting a variety of objects including flowers, masks, paintings and souvenirs from his grandparents' store. In the present composition, however, Ensor has chosen to focus on three human skulls set within a niche.  These objects were commons tropes in Northern Renaissance paintings, serving as somber symbols of vita brevis.   Here, set amidst the fishmongers as a warning, they enhance the absurdity of the scene and add levity to this otherwise severe group.

The objects scattered throughout this scene – from the fish tales to the candlesticks on the table - underscore the importance of ephemera in Ensor’s art.  “Anyone who surprised Ensor at work upstairs would see him emerge from a clutter of disparate objects: masks, rags, withered branches, shells, cups, pots, worn-out rugs, books littering the floor, prints piled up on chairs, empty frames standing stacked against the furniture, and the inevitable skull surveying the scene with two vacant sockets and no eyes. A friendly layer of dust lies over these innumerable strange objects, protecting them from the clumsy movements of visitors. They are waiting for the painter to breathe life into them, to make them speak, and, thanks to the sympathy he has with them and the eloquence he discerns in their silence, to introduce them into his paintings” stated Emile Verhaeren in 1908 (quoted in Emile Verhaeren, Sur James Ensor, Brussels, 1990).

According to Gisèle Ollinger-Zinque, more than half of Ensor’s drawings and one third of his paintings are still lifes, a testament to his continuing interest in the subject: "The still life enabled Ensor throughout his career to develop new pictorial techniques, to explore possible compositions and to create new things of his own. Right to the very end, it provided him with a compliant subject that offered an infinite variety of technical possibilities, ranging from realism by way of naturalism and Impressionism to the diaphanous colours and undulating lines of Art Nouveau. The still life genre highlights the evolution of Ensor’s oeuvre, helping us to make out a succession of different periods, each summed up in a handful of key works" (G. Ollinger-Zinque, Ensor (exhibition catalogue), Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, 1999, p. 32).