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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