James Ensor *
“Baptême de masques”, around 1925–30, signed J. Ensor, titled on the stretcher Le baptême de Masques, signed on the reverse J. Ensor, oil on canvas, 60 x 70 cm, framed, (PP)
Ensor Advisory Committee, Ghent, 26.10.2015
Simone Breton, Galerie Furstenberg (1954–1965), Paris
European Private Collection – acquired from the above
Taking its inspiration from the contemporary photograph, see below, this work represents a playful scene – a kind of masquerade – in which the protagonists include members of the Nahrath family, Ernest Rousseau fils, James Ensor (wearing a hussar busby), and two others, unidentified. One of Narath’s daughters later married Ernest Rousseau fils.
This painting blends all the principles of Ensor’s art: light that intensifies the mother-of-pearl colors, the desire for modernity, masks that confuse reality and his self-portrait as a marionette in a masquerade.
Ensor was clearly attached to this motif, since he executed a second version with the title “Réunion de masques (Mascarade)” as early as 1891. Two later versions of “Baptême des masques, 1891” exist, one of which is listed and dated “1937”.
The present work, around 1925–1930, is a new discovery.
James Ensor was born in the Belgian town of Ostend in 1860. This small fishing village acquired something of a reputation in 1834, when King Leopold I made his summer residence there, and went on to become a very fashionable and lively seaside resort in the following decades.
In Ostend, the Ensor family ran a souvenir and curiosity shop. The shop was to provide a livelihood for the Ensor family, and the future painter grew up surrounded by “shells, lace, stuffed rare fish, old books, engravings, vintage weapons, porcelain, an inextricable jumble of miscellaneous objects” (Ensor to Louis Delattre, 4 August 1898) (…)
This unusual environment had a long-lasting and decisive influence on the painter, as he would later acknowledge: “My childhood was filled with fantastic dreams and visits to my grandmother’s shop, with its iridescent glow reflecting from the shells, its sumptuous lace, strange stuffed animals and the dreadful weapons of savages that used to terrify me. [...] This extraordinary environment certainly contributed to the development of my artistic faculties.” (...)
Except for a few trips to London, the Netherlands and Paris, and numerous visits to Brussels, from 1880 onwards Ensor remained in his home town of Ostend until his death. (...)
Ensor produced landscapes, still lifes and portraits, as well as genre scenes featuring his sister, mother and aunt. (...) He committed himself to the liberalization of art exhibitions, and fought to become the leader of a new art movement. He was involved inter alia in the creation of the group known as Les XX [Les Vingt] which quickly came to play a significant role in the history of avant-garde painting. Brought up on the shores of the North Sea, Ensor was passionate about the effects of light.
In the painting The Oyster Eater, the shimmering liquids in the glasses and the reflections in the mirror already reveal the painter’s interest in the power and quality of light. Light is for him the opposite of line, which is in itself the “enemy of genius” and “cannot express beautiful and great feelings such as passion, anxiety, struggle, pain, enthusiasm or poetry [...].”
This interest in light provoked some critics to suggest a tentative comparison with French Impressionism. However, Ensor vehemently rejected this analogy: “I have been mistakenly placed with the Impressionists, those plein air daubers who are so fond of pale colours. I was the first to understand the form of light and the distortion that light inflicts upon line (...)”, he declared in 1899.
Driven by his convictions, he broadened his experiments, according light a unifying and spiritual power. A mystical aspect was added to the modern inspiration of his early subjects. Thus, his landscapes became more distant from reality, evoking images of primitive chaos dominated by a divine spirit.
(...) In 1887 he lost both his father and grandmother, to whom he was much attached. These events had a profound effect on Ensor and led to a turning point in his career and artistic output.
From 1887, images of masks and skeletons, already present throughout his work since 1883, became prominent. He even went back to some of his works from the early 1880s to add in these motifs. Naturally, masks and skeletons recalled the strange atmosphere of the family shop as well as the carnival tradition of Ostend, but they also had a symbolic meaning. Masks concealed and heightened a reality that the painter found too ugly and too cruel, while skeletons pointed to the vanity and absurdity of the world.
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris, James Ensor)
realized price**EUR 1,022,500USD 1,110,500
estimateEUR 300,000 to 500,000USD 326,000 to 543,000
Date: 31.05.2016, 18:00
Location: Palais Dorotheum Vienna
Exhibition: 21.05. - 31.05.2016
**Purchase price incl. all charges, commissions and taxes
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