In 1917, two years before the present painting was produced, Ensor moved to a house where his uncle Léopold Haegheman's shop had been located. (Fig.1). Although the ground floor shop was no longer active nor open to visitors, the painter kept all its stock, the counter and display window, like an abundant décor. Until his death, the most fantastical objects filled his house, and particularly his salon- studio, covering tables, mantelpieces and all the corners, serving as models for his compositions.
Compiled from some of these objects carefully arranged on a table, Harmonie en bleu is a still-life with a particularly accomplished composition. The elements depicted here – fans, china, flowers, shoes and shimmering cloths – have been chosen for their chromatic values. Ensor thus contrasts multiple tones of blue with the golden yellows of a few accessories in the background. All the talent of the artist described by Emile Verhaeren as "a poet and musician of colour" is apparent here (in La Plume, Paris, December 2 1888, p.11). Half hidden by a drapery, we can glimpse an example of the Les Patineurs etching (Taevernier, 1973, n°65), printed in red ink.
The composition of Harmonie en bleu recalls two major paintings produced several years earlier: Chinoiseries aux éventails, painetd in 1880 (Fig. 3 Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique) where the arrangement of fans is extremely close and Nature morte aux chinoseries, painted in 1906-07, where the same gold-patterned blue vase is set in the centre of the composition. (Fig.4, Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten).
A work of fascinating richness and refinement, Harmonie en bleu plunges the spectator directly into the heart of the personal and poetic universe of James Ensor. The spectator is immersed in the painter's Ostend studio, described in the following terms by his friend Emile Verhaeren: "One crashes down the steep, turning staircase and one leaves, after a handshake, the painter's house, without further ado if it were not for the ground floor shop with its large cases overflowing with trinkets which holds our attention for a minute. Here, among the shells and the mother-of-pearl, the Chinese vases and the Japanese lacquers, the multicolored feathers and the brightly colored screens, the painter's visual imagination takes pleasure in compiling his most rare and his most sweeping symphonies of color. Oh the both tender and powerful nuances, subtle and brutal, sober and dazzling that he makes vibrate, through the use of any poor oriental trinket, forgotten by fashion. And the curled shell with which the morose bourgeois decorates his marble mantelpiece becomes, thanks to the magic, thanks to the artist's hermeticism, a miracle of triumphant color that would dazzle the most beautiful rooms of modern museums." (Emile Verhaeren, James Ensor, Brussels, 1908, pp. 6-7)
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