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​Focus on James Ensor

[04 Apr 2017]

After a foundation course at his local arts academy, James Ensor pursued his studies at the Brussels Royal Academy of Fine Arts from 1877 to 1880 and then returned to Ostend where he spent practically all of his life with his family. At the time, Ostend’s provincial population was ill-prepared to accept such an audacious and defiant genius who was already producing mature avant-garde work when he was twenty. His early works were poorly received both in Ostend and elsewhere and his applications to the Antwerp and Brussels art fairs were rejected. In 1884, he contributed to the formation of the so-called XX Group, an avant-garde circle who appreciated the work of Gauguin, Van Gogh, Seurat and Cezanne. The first sparks of his celebrity were ignited when he was just 28 by a work that is today considered the most important of his career, Christ’s entry into Brussels, a giant canvas (2.5 x 4.3m) currently owned by the Getty museum in Los Angeles. The work contains both his emblematic brash colours and his emblematic masks.

Resolutely Modern, and conscious of being so, Ensor sent several works to the Salon d’Automne de Paris in 1907… but the reception fell short of his hopes and his ambitions. Faced with skeptical responses from critics, he took up his own defence, reminding anyone who would listen that he had emancipated himself from the pre-Vuillard and pre-Van Gogh vision. The « apostle of a new language, » as he called himself, received a better reception in Antwerp and Rotterdam where retrospectives of his works were organized in the 1910s. Belgium’s Royal Museums starting buying his paintings and, after the First World War, patrons managed to create an Ensor room at the Antwerp museum which is today home to forty of his works. However, his absolute consecration came even later when he was awarded Belgian nationality and named a Baron in 1929. Henceforward Baron Ensor became a major celebrity. Dubbed the Prince of painters, he helped to organise a major retrospective at the Brussels Museum of Fine Arts and ended his life decorated with honours and awards.

Although he didn’t teach art or even codify his art, Ensor had an immense influence on Belgian painters. The German avant-garde also owes much to him. The Die Brucke artists saw in his work the expressionist and instinctive resonance they were looking for. Intrigued by his personality and by his free style, Emil Nolde visited him in 1911. Today, his legacy is still palpable. His œuvre was recently revitalised by a London exhibition under the curatorship of another famous Belgian artist, Luc Tuymans. The exhibition Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans at the Royal Academy (29 October 2016 – 29 January 2017) was built around a substantial loan from Antwerp’s Museum of Fine Arts which holds the bulk of Ensor’s works and is currently undergoing renovation. It was a strong reminder of the originality of his contribution to the history of art and it coincided perfectly with an unprecedented level of demand for his work on the secondary market…

Ensor’s story is not so much a tale of “ rags to riches” as a tale of “mockery to recognition”. Receiving the ultimate awards towards the end of his lifetime, his works are still among the most sought-after and most expensive on the Western art market. The first major step in the general ascension of his prices occurred at the Yves Saint Laurent – Pierre Bergé sale in 2009 in the prestigious setting of the Grand Palais in Paris. The work offered, Le désespoir de Pierrot, almost doubled its high estimate when it fetched $6.4 million, impressively adding $5 million to his previous auction record. A fluke triggered by its prestigious provenance?… Not at all… Six years later his Les Poissardes Mélancoliques (1892) fetched $6.97 million and on 7 December 2016 Sotheby’s Paris offered his Squelette arrêtant masques, a recently rediscovered work that had belonged to the Serruys family for nearly a century. The auction house stressed “the extraordinary freshness of the colours and the iconic subject matter featuring Ensor’s characteristic figures in an incredibly modern composition”. Painted in Ostend in 1891 during the artist’s most productive period (his Masks period), this 30 x 50 cm oil painting sold for $7.82 million, setting a new world record for the artist. In fact, that result was also the best auction result in 2016 for a work of art in France (excluding antiques and anonymous works). It was indeed an extraordinary find…

Aside from these big results it worth noting that not everything by Ensor necessarily attracts hard bidding; some of his works sell even cheaper than works by young and relatively unknown artists. Examples include the recent sale at Amberes Veilingen in Antwerp of an original drawing for €2,200 ($2,320) on 12 December 2016 and a sketch acquired for just €550 last November 25 in Brussels (Petite feuille d’esquisse : objets posés sur une cheminée, The Romantic Agony). Naturally, his larger and coloured drawings sometimes reach into the tens of thousands of euros, but the market is sufficiently diversified and dynamic to make Ensor a key signature in any collection, whatever the collector’s resources…

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