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Details & Cataloguing

Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale

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James Ensor
1860 - 1949
LES POCHARDS (THE DRUNKARDS)
signed Ensor (lower right)
oil on canvas
79.5 by 100cm., 31 1/4 by 39 3/8 in.
Painted in 1910.
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Provenance

J.F. van Missiel, Liège (sale: Galerie Royale, Brussels, 30th March 1918, no. 5)
Yvan Lamberty, Brussels (sale: Galerie Giroux, Brussels, 11th February 1929, lot 5)
Sale: Galerie Giroux, Brussels, 7th December 1931, lot 51
Sale: Galerie Giroux, Brussels, 6th May 1933, lot 76
Marcel Cuvelier, Brussels (acquired before 1946)
Sale: Galerie Giroux, Brussels, 13th December 1956, lot 20
André Cuvelier, Brussels (acquired by 1972)
Willem Kleinberg, Antwerp
Sale: Campo, Antwerp, 29th April 1981, lot 642
Sale: Sotheby's, London, 29th June 1983, lot 20
Hayakawa Gallery (purchased at the above sale)
Sale: Hotel New Otani, Osaka, 11th December 1987, lot 25
Sale: Campo, Antwerp, 9th February 1993, lot 170
Galerie Jan Krugier, Geneva
Galerie Willy D'Huysser, Brussels 
Sale: Christie's, London, 26th June 2002, lot 129
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner

Exhibited

Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Rétrospective James Ensor, 1929, no. 259
Amsterdam, Kunsthandel Huinck & Scherjon, Werken door James Ensor, 1930, no. 14
Brussels, Galerie Georges Giroux, Hommage à James Ensor, 1945, no. 43 
London, National Gallery, C.E.M.A. Exhibition, 1946, no. 43 (titled The Topers)
Basel, Kunsthalle & Münster, Landesmuseum, James Ensor, 1963, no. 82
Stuttgart, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Ensor ein Maler aus dem späten 19.Jahrhundert, 1972, no. 53
Brussels, Galerie des Beaux-Arts, James Ensor, 1989, no. 5
Madrid, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya, James Ensor, 1996, no. 42, illustrated in the catalogue
Machelen (Zulte), Roger Raveel-Museum, Ensor & Raveel, 2008-09, n.n., illustrated in the catalogue

Literature

Grégoire Le Roy, James Ensor, Brussels & Paris, 1922, n.n., p. 192
Paul Colin, James Ensor, Leipzig, 1931, n.n., illustrated p. 15
Francine Claire Legrand & Gisele Ollinger-Zinque, Ensor Necunoscutul, Bucharest, 1975, no. 58
Xavier Tricot, Ensoriana, Ostend, 1985, no. 15b
Xavier Tricot, James Ensor, Life and Work: The Complete Paintings, Brussels, 2009, no. 444, illustrated p. 341 (titled Les Pochards)

Catalogue Note

‘The extreme attention he brought to reality, paradoxically stimulated his imagination and pushed him to finding the extraordinary within the ordinary’ (Sabine Taevernier, quoted in Ensor (exhibition catalogue) Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2009-10, p. 223). Sabine Taevernier’s words encapsulate the remarkable power of James Ensor’s Les Pochards (The Drunkards), in which a fairly quotidian scene of inebriation is imbued with an astonishing pathos which elevates it to an unexpected level of profundity and significance. Painted in 1910, the present work depicts the same subject as an 1883 painting of the same title, and Ensor’s decision to re-visit this theme is indicative of the importance he attached to the composition. The first version was one of the final works Ensor painted in his ‘realist’ manner before embarking on the more fantastical and surrealist paintings which were to dominate the remainder of his œuvre; as such, it served as the culmination of his exploration of this particular painterly style, one that had dominated his earliest works. Impressive in both scope and scale, the present work features a slightly warmer palette than the 1883 version and an assuredness of handling which only serves to re-inforce the strength and impact already present within its premier iteration.

Les Pochards depicts two somewhat world-weary Flemish men in the throes of advanced inebriation; the man on the right part sunk into a drunken stupor, whilst his companion gazes blankly out into the middle distance, seemingly likely to follow suit and take refuge from daily cares in temporary oblivion. The subject is somewhat unusual amongst Ensor’s corpus in the gritty social realism of the theme: heavy drinking as a concomitant of poverty was a pressing concern of the day in Belgium, just as it was in Paris and other major European cities. The striking simplicity of the almost bare background serves to re-inforce the emotional impact of the scene, as John David Farmer notes of the 1883 version: ‘The Drunkards… creates a shocking impact, baffling in its power because the scene is nearly static. Van Gogh’s early works share this characteristic, but The Drunkards is far more sophisticated and competent excursion into psychology and social commentary. In its sensitivity to the degradation of the subjects, the painting is actually closer to the work of Degas…’ (John David Farmer quoted in Ensor (exhibition catalogue), The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago & The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1976, p. 21). Indeed, the present work brings to mind Degas’ celebrated L’Absinthe, painted in 1875-76 and now residing in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Both works share a brutal yet profoundly moving honesty, catching the figures off-guard as they wallow within their cares. Ensor suggests no element of censure towards his two subjects; rather, Les Pochards serves as an indirect criticism of a society that perpetuated the problem and the difficult living conditions that drove farmworkers and poorly paid inhabitants of the towns to seek solace in alcohol.

The only decoration adorning the wall behind the figures is a large poster advertising the sale of an estate due to bankruptcy, a theme which held personal significance for Ensor. Referring to the 1883 version, Susan M. Canning makes reference to the difficult events surrounding his father’s own bankruptcy: ‘Made only a few years after the Ensor family’s bankruptcy… The Drunkards contains a private reference  - the bankruptcy notices in the background – that subtly melds Ensor’s own experience of class and alcoholism into a perspective quite different from the moralistic views of his contemporaries’ (Susan M. Canning quoted in James Ensor (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2009, p. 31).

Born in Ostend to an English father and a Belgian mother, Ensor’s precocious artistic talent was recognised at an early age by his father, who supported and encouraged his son’s creative ambitions. The young artist took painting lessons from the age of thirteen, enrolling at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels in 1877. Following his studies he returned to his parents’ home, where he was to maintain a studio until 1917. Remarkably he rarely ventured out of Belgium for the rest of his life, aside from brief trips to France and a single short visit to England, finding plentiful artistic stimulation in his home town of Ostend. Ultimately, in its combination of searing social commentary and great emotional depth, Les Pochards is undoubtedly one of Ensor’s masterpieces.

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