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 James Sidney Ensor  (1860 - 1949)

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Lived/Active: Belgium      Known for: figure, genre, interior and portrait painting

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Le désespoir de Pierrot (Pierrot le jaloux)
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

The following text was written and submitted by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher in Laguna Woods, California:

James Ensor was born in 1860 in Ostend, a Belgian seaport and watering place.  His parents ran a little junk shop, and Ensor's childhood was obsessed by the dark and frightening attic, full of items from the shop.  He attended the Brussels Beaux-Arts from 1877 to 1880.  Ostend must have been a very stuffy place, but Ensor could hardly bear to leave it.  In his whole life, he made just one trip to Paris, Holland and London each. He was a reclusive man with an eclectic brush, who turned a wide range of styles and influences into a scabrous, satirical vision of grinning skulls and tormented masks. The theme of masks is central to the work of Ensor.   

Light, considered a sign of divine immanence, fascinated Ensor.  It gives a special tension to his skeleton pieces, mask paintings and street scenes of his best years, from 1885 to 1900. Freed from academic color by the impressionists, Ensor's paintings blossomed into extravagent exorcisms of the ghosts that taunted him.  A precursor of Expressionism, he influenced Emil Nolde (who adopted his theme of the mask) and Paul Klee.  His fantastical universe foreshadows Surrealism.   

It is customary in Belgium, to see Ensor as a man of the people, but his judges and police officers, as well as his waterfront characters, are all painted as subhuman.  As a political artist, he was both strident and unfocused. He disliked the Belgian monarchy but could not refuse the Order of Leopold in 1903, or the barony that the next King of Belgium offered him in 1929.  After the turn of the century, he painted almost nothing of consequence for fifty years.  He lived to  the age of eighty-nine, revered and respected. He died in 1949.   

Sources include:   
Robert Hughes in Time Magazine, March 7,1977   
Mark Stevens in Newsweek, January 31, 1977   
From the internet,

Biography from Bruce Palmer Galleries:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

James Sidney Ensor, Baron Ensor (April 13, 1860–November 19, 1949), was a Belgian painter whose portrayals of grotesque humanity made him a principal precursor of 20th-century Expressionism and Surrealism.

Ensor was born in Ostend, Belgium, in 1860, and, except for three years spent at the Brussels Academy, from 1877 to 1880, he lived in Ostend all his life.  His early works were of traditional subjects: landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and interiors painted in deep, rich colors and enriched by a subdued but vibrant light.

In the mid-1880s, influenced by the bright color of the Impressionists and the grotesque imagery of earlier Flemish Primitives such as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Ensor turned toward avant-garde themes and styles.  He took his subject matter principally from Ostend's holiday crowds, which filled him with revulsion and disgust. Portraying individuals as clowns or skeletons or replacing their faces with carnival masks, he represented humanity as stupid, smirking, vain, and loathsome.

An example of this type of painting is his immense canvas Christ's Entry Into Brussels (1888, J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, California).  Ensor deliberately used harsh, garish colors and violent, broken brushstrokes to heighten the violent effect of his subjects. 

He died in 1949 in Ostend, where there is now a museum devoted to his work.  In 1994 a new audience was introduced to James Ensor when the group, "They Might Be Giants", released the song Meet James Ensor, which aptly describes him as "Belgium's famous painter."

In 1995, the state of Belgium recognized Ensor's achievements by dedicating the 100-franc (~ 2.5 EUR) bill to him and his work, which of course disappeared again in 2002 when the Euro replaced the Belgian franc.

Source: Wikipedia---the online encyclopedia.

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