The Scandalous Art of James Ensor

In the 1880s, the young James Ensor was an ambitious renegade. Dive into his subversive and eccentric world through the painting "Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889."

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

This monumental work was Ensor’s masterpiece, one that brutally satirized modern Belgian society while flouting artistic convention in its crude caricatures, thick paint, clashing colors, and distorted space. Ensor meant to showcase the painting in the 1889 exhibition of Les XX, a progressive artists’ association in Brussels, and thereby assert his position as a leader of the avant-garde . . . 

Crowds and Processions

Ensor imagines a vast, teeming crowd pushing toward the viewer in a disconcerting procession that weirdly blends elements of official civic and military parades, political protests, solemn religious displays, and riotous carnival celebrations. 

Alongside a skinny civic official, clownish figures in wildly colorful costumes trumpet Ensor’s delight in carnival themes and the popular theatrical tradition of commedia dell’arte

The artist and his avant-garde contemporaries saw these itinerant performers as wise fools existing on the social margins who were free to mock the world and reflect on the human condition.

The anti-authoritarian Ensor had little respect for ruling institutions, presenting the members of this military marching band as vacuous puppets, by turns comic and sinister. 

Near the center, the general’s yellow uniform is plastered with medals, but his red, bulbous nose and puffy face suggest an undisciplined drunkard, not a commander.

The abbreviated message on the overarching red banner reads, “Long live the Social.” It references the growing Socialist and workers’ movements in the turbulent 1880s and might suggest Ensor’s leftist sympathies. 

The banner provides an ironic contrast to the members of the military, government, and Church who dominate the front of the procession below. In other works, Ensor highlights highlights the economic plight, political disenfranchisement, and sometimes violent suppression of the working classes.

Religion and Power

Ensor’s self-portraits range from the satirical to the macabre. With humor and irony, he often attacked his critics or portrayed himself as a victim of their assaults. Posturing as a persecuted, visionary artist even led Ensor to identify with Christ. 

The resemblance of Christ’s face here to Ensor’s has been much remarked. Trumpeting Ensor's sense of self-importance, the monumental painting references the biblical story of Christ's triumphal entrance into Jerusalem shortly before the Crucifixion.

Occupying the center of the picture, Jesus is nevertheless presented as a diminished figure who is practically lost amid a crowd that largely ignores him—perhaps signaling the painter’s own feelings of social and artistic isolation.

Ensor may have identified personally with Christ, but he freely attacked the institution of the Church. He casts a roly-poly bishop as a clownish, baton-wielding drum major leading the military marching band—a cynical allusion to the close political alliance between the Belgian monarchy and the conservative Catholic Party in the 1880s.

Christ’s Entry into Brussels also features a portrait of the Marquis de Sade in the lower right corner, smirking in the direction of the bishop.

Infamous in the late 1700s for his libertine attitudes toward religion, morality, and sex, de Sade appealed philosophically to Ensor for his passionate commitment to individual liberty and freedom of thought. 

This placard’s message translates as "Dogmatic Fanfares [are] Always Successful.” It cynically conveys Ensor’s fervent individualism and skepticism of institutional power, dogma, and party politics. The message is an ironic comment on the various other contending "fanfares" in the painting, from "Vive la Sociale" to "Vive Jesus."

This sign translates as “Long Live Jesus, King of Brussels” and hails Christ as modern-day Belgium’s savior. The message, though, is literally an aside, at the farthest edge of the crowd.

Ensor suggests that the invocation of Jesus’s name has become just another profane slogan in a cacophonous public arena filled with competing  signs and banners.

Masks and Creatures

For Ensor masks were the ultimate satirical device, exposing the psychological, emotional, and moral deficiencies of his targets. Masks also gave the painter license to push artistic boundaries.

As he colorfully declared, “The mask means freshness of tone, acute expression, sumptuous decor, great unexpected gestures, unplanned movements, exquisite turbulence.”

Ensor’s native Ostend, Belgium was host to a famous carnival, and celebrants descending annually on the seaside resort town bought masks from his family’s souvenir shop. This face of a shrewish woman in blue glasses is evidently based on one he kept in his studio, as she appears repeatedly in his work.

These two grimacing masks at the far right evoke the highly stylized, grotesque forms of Japanese Noh theater. Ensor joined in the Japanese art craze of late 19th-century Europe, eagerly studying the imports stocked in his family’s souvenir shop. Such “exotic” sources encouraged Ensor to exaggerate form and color in his art and to boldly defy conventional Western notions of beauty.

Ensor was proud of his Flemish heritage. He greatly admired early Netherlandish art and found inspiration for his own strange inventions in the fantastical and demonic creatures that populate the work of such artists as Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

This bizarre, owl-like creature is Ensor’s homage to this tradition, which he upheld against the French artistic models that dominated painting in his day.

Sadly we’ll never know what Ensor’s contemporaries thought of Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 at the time of its creation. He did not finish it in time for the 1889 exhibition of Les XX, retaining it in his studio and working away at it for some years afterward.

It eventually became a fixture of his Ostend apartment, and as Ensor’s mythic stature as an avant-garde hero and eccentric hermit grew, the painting contributed to his mystique and attracted admiring artists from far afield. 

But it was only in 1929, during a major retrospective of his work in Brussels, that the public first laid their eyes on this astonishing painting.

Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888) by James EnsorThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Appreciate the massive scale of Ensor's painting wherever you are with Google's Art Projector tool in the Arts & Culture app.

How To: Art Projector for "Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889" (2020)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Credits: Story

© 2020 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

A version of this material was published in 2014 as the text to an in-gallery interactive accompanying the exhibition "The Scandalous Art of James Ensor," June 10–September 7, 2014, at the Getty Center.

To cite these texts, please use: "The Scandalous Art of James Ensor," published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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