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).
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