Lot 442
  • 442

JAMES ENSOR | Le Coquillage rose

150,000 - 250,000 USD
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  • James Ensor
  • Le Coquillage rose
  • Signed Ensor and dated 1914 (lower right)
  • Oil on panel
  • 14 1/8 by 16 1/2 in.
  • 36 by 41.9 cm
  • Painted in 1914.


Private Collection, Belgium
Acquired from the above by the present owner


The panel is sound. The pigments are well-preserved and the colors present very nicely. Under UV, there is an uneven layer of discolored varnish, with possible evidence of prior retouching notably to the edges and corners which fluoresce. The 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.

Catalogue Note

Le Coquillage rose is a stunning example of the primacy of color in the work of an artist who holds a prominent place in the development of Expressionism. “A correct line cannot inspire lofty sentiments; it demands neither sacrifice nor profound admixture,” Ensor once wrote to the critic Pol du Mont, “It is the enemy of genius, incapable of expressing passion, disquiet, struggle, pain, enthusiasm or poetry—any of those fine and grand feelings—not any firmly held principle… In the distortion that light inflicts upon the line, I saw the immensity waiting to be explored and a new vision to be established” (quoted in Anna Swinburne, James Ensor, New York, 2009, p. 18). While he initially included objects traditional to the still-life genre, such as fruit and vegetables, more esoteric items like fans and chinoiserie, rare stuffed fish or shells appear with greater frequency in his mature works. The iridescent glow of the shells in his grandmother’s curiosity shop caught his imagination as a young boy, and large conches were often used as the centerpieces of his still lifes.

Famously reclusive, Ensor remained in Ostend throughout the war and the present work is one of only a handful paintings which he produced in 1914. His studio was in the attic of the narrow family house which had large windows at street level to display the shop’s exotic wares that hung from transparent threads. “To some extent, the future of modern painting was determined in that attic” (Paul Haesaerts, Ensor, New York, 1959, p. 50).

A description of this strange setting was provided by the writer Stefan Zweig, whose account of a visit in 1914 is recorded by Volker Weidermann: “Zweig went in. Yes, he was told, her son was upstairs, why didn’t he just go up. A dark, narrow hallway and stairs carpeted in red, maliciously smirking masks lining the stairwell. He passed a tiny kitchen, red-enameled pots on the stove, dripping faucet. Up on the third floor a man wearing a flat cap was sitting at the piano playing quietly to himself, apparently oblivious to everything around him… A round table displayed a large armful of dusty grasses in a vase, painted, Chinese, acting as the base for a laughing, toothless skull, wearing a woman’s hat stuck with dried flowers. The man at the piano kept playing to himself and humming. Stefan Zweig stood for a while as if paralyzed, then he turned around and ran down the stairs, through the shell shop and onto the street, in the sun, back into the daylight. He wanted to get away from here, back to being carefree, have something to eat, regain his composure” (Volker Weidermann, Ostend, Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark, London, 2016, n.p.).

The mottled but clearly delineated planes in the present work anticipate the color combinations of mid-century artists such as David Hockney or Mark Rothko (see fig. 1).

This work will be included in the next edition of the Catalogue raisonné of the paintings of James Ensor being prepared by Xavier Tricot.