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: Intrigue by James Ensor


Sam Sachs II



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Le Carnaval d’Ostende, aux frontières du réel et de l’irréal, du trivial et du poétique, devient l’image même du carnaval humain, du carnaval universel.1During the last half of the nineteenth century Ostend, on the Belgian coast, was one of the favorite watering places of the fashionable, international set. It was there on April 13, 1860, that James Sydney Ensor was born to an English father and a Belgian mother. He was to live the rest of his life (died 1949), with minor exceptions, there and in the process established himself as the first major Belgian artist since Rubens.By dint of his father's nationality Ensor was a British subject.2 His family kept a small souvenir shop a block from the beach, selling shells, puppets, carnival masks, and porcelain to the tourists. When it became apparent the boy had artistic talent, his mother hoped soon to have “hand-painted” oils to add to her wares and young James was thus apprenticed to two local watercolorists for training. Surely she was to get more than she bargained for.In 1877, at 17, Ensor went to Brussels to enter the Academy and remained three years under the tutelage of Portaels, an undistinguished artist but a superb teacher. He emerged, well trained in the canons of Academia, and returned to Ostend where he produced workmanlike seascapes, flower-pieces, and bourgeois interiors to the delight of all. His sister, Mariette, a year younger, became a frequent and comely model. His works were well received in exhibitions both conservative and avante-garde and, by the early eighteen-eighties, his paintings had been accepted into both the Brussels and Paris salons.His style, however, was maturing and quickly becoming more personal. His estrangement from the Academy was evidenced by his joining with Octave Maus in the founding of Les XX in 1883, a group of artists described by Alfred Barr as, “at that time the most progressive art society in the world.” By 1884 all of Ensor's entries to the Salon in Brussels were rejected. A new startling colorism had entered his work as he abandoned the acceptable middle-class subject matter in favor of more bizarre realms. Even Maus, who was able to tolerate the then rebellious post-impressionist and pointillist paintings, was appalled. So ahead of his contemporaries was Ensor in fact that in 1888 two works he submitted for exhibition at Les XX were rejected by his fellow vigtistes and in 1890 two more were turned down, among them the infamous Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 now regarded as his chef d'auvre.What was most startling to Ensor's colleagues was perhaps his frequent inclusion in his works of figures masked in the fashion of the carnival. The imagery of the mask had captured the artist, and while the Entry of Christ was not their first appearance, it was certainly the most profuse usage. Increasingly appalled by the vile and bizarre aspects of humanity, Ensor turned from the studied and realistic observations of nature to the imaginative and fanciful observation of mankind; his imagination was powerful indeed. The very idea of the Second Coming taking place in Brussels was shocking, but to stage it in a carnival atmosphere was revolutionary.To Ensor, however, it was only at the “carnival” that man truly expressed himself, for, with his identity hidden behind a mask, he was free from rebuke or responsibility for his actions. Besides, if Christ did come, wouldn't the most splendid reception possible be a parade? It was this accuracy, combined with contempt, which both identified Ensor as a twentieth-century artist and simultaneously isolated him spiritually and eventually physically from his colleagues. The Entry of Christ, painted in 1888, was not to be officially exhibited until 1929 at the time of the great Ensor retrospective in Brussels.It was against this background that Ensor painted his Intrigue in 1890 now in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. Self-exiled in Ostend, he lived with his mother, aunt, and sister, his father having died in 1887. Increasingly reclusive, he developed the theme of the human carnival, as symbolized in the mask, and frequently toyed with the subject of death. He believed that only through his art would he outlive his moral self; his art would survive. His humorous but telling My Portrait in 1960 was understood by few, as were similar works along the same lines.Mariette, his sister, or Miche as she was known, had developed a romance with a Chinese man, Tan Hée Tseu, who lived in Berlin and whom she married in 1892.3 As Intrigue antedates the wedding, we must assume that even though the central figures have been described as bride and groom, they are at best engaged.4 As Ensor was very close to his sister we can assume that he, at the very least, wished her happiness with the man of her choice. Without doubt any prenuptial appearance of Tan in Ostend provoked rumblings among the bourgeoise, rumblings which were bound to be embarrassing.Ensor, in Intrigue, has brought the murmuring of the fishwives out into the open. The coterie which simultaneously accompany and mock the central couple are disguised by the artist's stock visages,5 but their motives are clearly suggested nonetheless. They are there to gawk, to laugh, to molest and provoke, but above all to remain anonymous. The lovers wish to anonymity which will protect while the mob wishes that one will conceal, and neither succeeds says the artist. Their schemings are doomed to failure, as are they, for death, lurking in the background at the left, sees all and will eventually even the score.As a hedge and an insurance policy against his own failure in the battle against death and ultimate anonymity, Ensor, in later years, copied many of his own and best works so that he and his message might survive. In 1911, still only the midpoint of his career, Ensor created another version of Intrigue, and it is this painting that has now entered the collections of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.6 Similar in virtually all aspects to the first rendition in Brussels, it adds immeasurably to the representation of modern art in the museum. With the Vase of Flowers of 1883, Intrigue presents with admirable economy of numbers the many-faceted spectrum of one of the consummate masters of our time.Endnotes
  1. Paul Haesaerts, James Ensor (Brussels, 1957), p. 102. “The Ostend Carnival, on the frontier of the real and unreal, the trivial and the poetic, became the very image of the human carnival, the universal carnival.”
  2. He retained his British citizenship until 1929 when he was created Baron Ensor by the King of Belgium, then becoming naturalized in the country of his birth.
  3. Haesaerts, op. cit., p. 16.
  4. “The man and woman in the center are the main actors in the drama. The mask of the woman, with its upturned eyes and mouth hanging open, wears a look of almost idiotic ecstasy; she wears white flowers and hangs on the arm of the man like a new bride. The man wears a top hat and half hides his expressionless overrated mask in the fur collar of his coat. These merciless figures mock the marriage of Ensor's own sister to a Chinese who kept an art shop in Berlin, and whom she left after a year to live in Ostend with her daughter. The woman in the foreground of the painting holds a little oriental doll and points to the man with a gloved hand which is given emphasis by its color.” Libby Tannenbaum, James Ensor (New York, 1951), p. 83.
  5. See The Attributes of the Arts, 1889. In a painting remarkably related to the Chardin work of the same subject in The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Ensor paints masks hanging on the walls of his studio which appear again in Intrigue, notably the one with the gaping mouth and the one for the sister.
  6. 70.38. Gift of Mrs. John S. Pillsbury, Oil on canvas, 37 1/4” x 44 1/4”. Signed and dated 1911.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. JAMES ENSOR Belgian, 1860-1949. L'Intrigue, 1911. Oil on canvas, 37 1/4” x 44 1/4”. Gift of Mrs. John S. Pillsbury, 70.38
  2. JAMES ENSOR Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 (detail). Oil on canvas, 101 5/16” x 149 1/4”. Collection Colonel L. Franck, C.B.E., London (on Loan in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp)
  3. JAMES ENSOR Intrigue, 1890. Oil on canvas, 35 3/8” x 58 7/8”. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp
  4. JAMES ENSOR My Portrait in 1960, 1888. Etching, 2 11/16” x 4 11/16”
  5. JAMES ENSOR The Attributes of the Arts, 1889. Oil on canvas, 32 5/8” x 44 5/16”. Collection R. Leten, Ghent
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Source: Samuel Sachs II, "Intrigue by James Ensor," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 59 (1970): 20-25.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009