James Ensor: Masks and Mysticism

James Ensor’s “Baptême de masques” sold for €1,022,500 at the modern art auction at Dorotheum Vienna on 31st May, 2016.

Blending all the principles of Ensor’s art, Baptême de masques, painted between 1925 and 1930, was previously unknown. Inspired by the photography of the day, it depicts a masquerade in Ensor’s signature style: mother-of-pearl colour palette intensified by light, a thirst for modernity, masks that obscure reality, and his own self-portrait as a marionette in a masquerade. It was featured in Dorotheum’s modern art auction in Vienna on 31st May 2016.

A signature painting

This signature work represents a playful scene – a kind of masquerade – in which the protagonists include members of the Nahrath family, Ernest Rousseau Jr., James Ensor (sporting a hussar’s busby), and two unidentified others.

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 man behind the mask

Born in the Belgian town of Ostend in 1860, James Ensor grew up amidst the odd objects in his family’s souvenir and curiosity shop: “shells, lace, stuffed rare fish, old books, engravings, vintage weapons, porcelain, an inextricable jumble of miscellaneous objects” (Ensor to Louis Delattre, 4th August 1898). This unusual environment was crucial to Ensor’s artistic development, and by his own admission “this extraordinary environment certainly contributed to the development of my artistic faculties”.

Except for a few trips to London, the Netherlands, Paris, and numerous visits to Brussels, from 1880 onwards Ensor remained in his home town of Ostend until his death.

Finding the light

Ensor produced landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and genre scenes featuring family members. He was committed to the cause of liberalising art exhibitions and became the leader of a new art movement. His interest in light, which can be seen early on in his painting “The Oyster Eater,” provoked some critics to compare him to the French Impressionists, an observation Ensor vehemently rejected. His increasingly experimental work saw him accord light a unifying and spiritual power, and a mystical aspect was added to the modern subject matter of his early works. His landscapes became more distant from reality, evoking images of primitive chaos dominated by a divine spirit.

The deaths of Ensor’s father and grandmother in 1887 deeply affected him. Masks and skeletons took on a prominent role in his work. He even added these motifs to previous paintings from the early 1880s. Such imagery evoked both the curious atmosphere of his family’s shop and the carnival tradition of his hometown, but was also symbolic; while masks hid a reality whose ugliness and cruelty Ensor found unbearable, skeletons revealed the world’s vanity and absurdity.

All these factors come together in the previously unknown Baptême de masques. Sure to provoke interest as a signature Ensor work, it showcases his artistic singularity and skill.

The work was auctioned at the:

Modern Art Auction on 31st May, 2016
Palais Dorotheum in Vienna

Video: James Ensor / Modern Art Auction on 31st May, 2016

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