Lot 53
  • 53

James Ensor

30,000 - 50,000 GBP
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  • James Ensor
  • Alimentation Doctrinaire, première planche (D., T., E. 79)
  • etching
  • plate: 180 by 237mm 7 by 9 3/8 in
  • sheet: 378 by 251mm 14 7/8 by 9 7/8 in
Etching, 1889, an exceedingly rare counterproof of Elesh's first state (of five), on tissue thin China paper, framed


Ex coll. G. Behaegel, Pittem (not in Lugt); an unidentifiable stamp (in duplicate)


With uneven, inky margins, in good condition, a couple nicks at the upper left sheet edge, a pin hole in the upper margin just above the plate-mark, some soft creasing and pale brown staining in the upper margin above the fold, a horizontal fold above the upper plate edge and creasing along the lower and right sheet edges are inherent to the production, framed.
"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

With only a handful of impressions known, Alimentation Doctrinaire, première planche, is arguably the rarest of James Ensor’s prints. When Delteil published the first catalogue raisonné of James Ensor’s graphic work in 1925, he was not able to find any impressions of this print, and when Croquez published the second catalogue raisonné, he said ‘no prints are known to be on the market, we possessed four states but they all disappeared during the war.’ (Albert Croquez, L’Ouevre gravée James Ensor catalogue raisonné, Le Carrec, Paris, 1935) Both Tavernier and Elesh mention the existence of five states, although it is not clear whether multiple impressions of each of these states were pulled, but given the experimental nature of this plate this is unlikely. There are two hand-coloured impressions known, one currently in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, making for a total of seven recorded impressions of this print.


The present lot, a previously unrecorded impression, is even more of a rarity in that it is a counterproof. A counterproof is created by covering a freshly printed impression with a new sheet of paper, in this instance tissue-thin chine, and then running both sheets through the press again. The still-moist ink leaves an impression on the second sheet of paper, which in turn, shows the composition in the same direction in which it was drawn on the plate. Counterproofs were often pulled to give the artist a chance to inspect the state of the plate; and in this case more particularly to inspect the effect of the sulphuring on the plate. Although Ensor re-worked this plate at least three more times, it appears that ultimately he was not happy with the result of his experimentation with sulphuring, as he abandoned this plate and began work on his second plate of this subject Alimentation Doctrinaire, deuxieme planche (T. 89) (see comparable image). In the second plate, the subject is much more legible, although the work seems to have lost an element of the grotesque distorted forms, and the ambiguous sense of space for which Ensor is so well known.


Relating quite closely to La Belgique au XIXe siècle (see lot 28), Alimentation Doctrinaire is one of Ensor’s most potent and provocative satirical subjects. In this dark and gloomy scene, the artist depicts the ruling classes of Belgium in the late nineteenth-century perched above the masses and defecating into their open mouths. A grotesque King Leopold II sits in the centre surrounded by bloated clergymen, a general, and a politician, who hold placards representing the reform demands of Belgium’s socialist parties. These signs read Suffrage Universale (Universal Suffrage), Service Personnel (National Service) and Enseignment obligatoire (Compulsary Education). Although in the current impression these signs are difficult to read, Ensor re-works the plate to make the text more legible ahead of the second state. The Industrial Revolution in Belgium had not been kind to the working classes, which gave rise to a new group of organised Socialist groups who were unhappy with the current plight. In this highly charged print, Ensor is not only commenting on the negligence of Belgium’s ruling classes to the demands of the socialist parties, but also on the willingness of the masses to accept the status quo.