Vibrant Lights of the Human Soul

Dive into James Ensor's "Coquillages et draperie bleue" (1903)

By Collezione Barilla di Arte Moderna

Conchiglie e drappeggi blu (1903) by ENSOR James (1860-1949)Collezione Barilla di Arte Moderna

Still life with surprise

Before our eyes a still life appears that seems similar to many others: balanced composition, objects of common use, represented with quick brush strokes but aware. Are we sure that’s so? Observe, let's look at the details and we can have surprises.

The disappeared shadow

The first, very great, is given by the absence of the shadows. The objects are plastic and in perfect combination among them, they seem not to occupy a defined space. They don’t find peace on the table in their assigned position. The light hits them but is not able to block and photograph them. A vibration game, imperceptible and vital movement is created which makes you lose the center of gravity to the work. That’s how James Ensor “builds” his still life because he doesn’t want to paint a domestic scene, he wants to tell us a state of mind.

The author

Dark, shy and controversial personality, James Ensor was born in 1860 in Ostenda where he will pass, except for a short period in Bruxelles to attend the Academy of Fine Arts, all his life (here he will die in 1949), fascinated by his father’s home and, most of all, by the family’s souvenir shop where he observes objects which tease his childlike imagination (various curiosities, shells, masks, chinoiserie).


Nature and reality are the inspiration of his first works, but during time they deform, they leave space to the story of subconscious (before the Freud studies). He tells about the hypocritical social decline that hides behind many monstrous masks which animate his scenes full of vibrant, clear and lively colors, closer to those of a noisy carnival, rather than to the intimate and airy palette of the impressionists. Here we find the start of a journey, with also the contribution of the Dutch Munch, that will lead to the more powerful and shocking Expressionism.

The caducity of things

Ensor doesn’t investigate only the human soul and customs, as we see in front of us. He portrays the objects and their caducity because they are living elements of nature. He studies their fullness in connection with the light that gives plasticity and he plays with the observer's eyes, who can’t stay still, because in search of the center of gravity that is made explicit by the artist, but always put in crisis by little disturbing elements.

Still life as a story

He makes nature a storytelling tool through which he expresses himself since the beginning of his artistic production with evolving results during time. Here his provocative, grotesque and irreverent soul calms down.

A disturbing movement

Here we can see a collection of marine objects, familiar shells and everyday elements scattered in the scene, in vibrant orbit around a center, composed by a pitcher, a tray and a blue cloth, that looks like a shy character. An apparently dead scene but that vibrates imperceptibly, waiting for the observer to grasp the feeling of discomfort which the artist sends us, with disturbing and ambiguous movement.

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