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James Ensor
Ensor, IntrigueClick to larger image
James Ensor
Intrigue. 1911
Oil on canvas
H. 37 1/4 W. 44 1/2 in.
About the Art

Intrigue depicts the harassment of the artist's sister Mariette and her Chinese fiancé by the villagers of Ostend, Belgium. Although this painting was inspired by a specific personal experience, it also makes a profound statement about the ugliness of prejudice and discrimination.

Mariette's romance with Tan Hée Tseu, an art dealer who lived in Berlin, caused a great scandal in the rural town. When Tan appeared in Ostend before the wedding, the villagers plagued the couple with racist gossip.

In Ensor's painting, the figures are placed close to the picture plane as if they are on a stage, dramatically confronting the viewer. Mariette, the blue-haired, green-capped woman, and Tan, the man in the black top hat, are in the center of the crowd. Mariette holds Tan's arm protectively, while he seems to withdraw into the collar of his coat. They are surrounded by grotesque gossipers who, safe in their carnival masks, have come to taunt them. A heckler in the foreground carries a Chinese doll and points an accusing finger at Tan.

Although in some instances masks can be cheerful and festive, in Ensor's work they represent the dark side of human nature. Here they seem to reflect the true personalities of the people who wear them, showing them to be cruel, "ugly" people. However, Mariette and Tan, like their tormentors, are also in masquerade. The mask serves two functions: it can protect the vulnerable and also hide the identity of the vicious.

Rather than depicting things as they actually appear, Ensor creates a sense of fantasy and caricature by exaggerating colors, lines and forms. He contrasts bright colors--reds, blues, greens--with whites, browns, and blacks. This combination of colors creates an intense, vibrant effect. Ensor's nervous brushstrokes move wildly in various directions, adding to the tense mood of the painting. The thickly painted sky is turbulent and full of doom, adding to the uneasy feeling of the crowd.

Vocabulary Terms

caricature--A representation of a person that exaggerates or distorts certain recognizable features, often concentrating on personal as well as physical features.

foreground--The part of the picture that appears to be closest to the viewer.

picture plane--The surface of a picture.

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