Ensor, James

Ensor, James Biography

Belgian painter, whose unique portrayals of grotesque humanity made him a principal precursor of 20th-century expressionism and surrealism. Ensor was born in Oostende, Belgium, and, except for three years spent at the Brussels Academy, from 1877 to 1880, he lived in Oostende all his life. Ensor was an acknowledged master by the time he was 20 years old. After a youthful infatuation with the art of Rembrandt and Rubens, he adopted the vivacious brushstroke of the French Impressionists.
Ensor's early oil paintings were of traditional subjects-landscapes, still lifes, portraits, interiors-painted in deep, rich colors and lighted by subdued but vibrant light. In the mid-1880s, influenced by the bright color of the impressionists and the grotesque imagery of earlier Flemish masters such as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Ensor turned toward avant-garde themes and styles. He took his subject matter principally from Oostende'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.

Ensor deliberately used harsh, garish colors and violent, broken brushstrokes to heighten the violent effect of his subjects. His oil paintings had an important influence on 20th-century painting, his lurid subject matter paving the way for surrealism and Dada, and his techniques leading directly to expressionism. He died in Oostende, where there is now a museum devoted to his artwork.

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