Exhibition"Hommage à Ensor" Gal. Georges Giroux, Brussels 1945, nr. 67
"Kunst van Heden" Stedelijke Feestzaal, Antwerp 1950, nr. 80
"Retrospectieve James Ensor" KMSK, Antwerp 1951, nr. 111 (dated there 1893)
"Ensor" KMSK, Brussels 1999-2000, nr. 103 reprod.
Literature"James Ensor. Leven en werk. Oeuvrecatalogus van de schilderijen" Xavier Tricot, Mercatorfonds, Brussels 2009, nr. 338 reprod.
"Gilles en Sauvage, een raadselachtig schilderij uit 1891" Xavier Tricot, webpublication on www.vlaamsekunstcollectie.be
Provenancecoll. G. Beun, Brussels
Gal. Georges Giroux, Brussels 29.11.1952, nr. 66
GILLES ET SAUVAGE, 1891
No matter how extensive and varied Ensor's oeuvre is, art historians and critics agree that his creativity reaches a climax in the period between around 1885 and 1895. The young Ensor comes at a turning point in the 1880s, when he abandons his academic course and explores the opulence of his own fantasy in an unseen, completely original and controversial style. Masks, grotesques, skeletons, carnivalesque and historical figures make their appearance. Pictorial renewal breaks through with a clear palette, contrasting colors and fascination for light. A second turning point occurs around 1895, when the artist's originality seems to become somewhat eroded. He repeats and copies subjects, compositions and characters. From this moment on, Ensor becomes an internationally renowned artist gaining more and more recognition.
In the middle of this period of unbridled originality, Ensor conceives "Gilles et Sauvage" (1891), an oil painting on panel. A true jewel it is, the colors bright and dancing in almost casual brushstrokes, the skillful rendering of light. The paint still being wet, Ensor molded with his pencil the Bruegelian characters. Line by line they come to life, their dialogue animated by vivid gestures.
Ensor's genius doesn't require an extensive surface. Around the same date, he made various iconic works of limited size, showing his preference for historical, legendary and fantastic subjects such as "Portrait of Emile Verhaeren" (Royal Library, Brussels), "The Man of Sorrows" (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp), "Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring" (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels) and "The Auto-da-fe" (or "Philip II in Hell") (private collection). One could even say the modest size highlights the mysterious character of these works.
The question about the identity of Gilles and Sauvage remains. Xavier Tricot, author of the oeuvre catalog, offers three hypotheses. Could they be the French chroniclers Nicole Gilles (142? -1503) and Denis Sauvage (1520? -1587)? Or does Ensor depict Pieter Gillis (Antwerp, 1486-1553), humanist and a friend of Erasmus and Thomas More, and Jean Le Sauvage, who was friend of Quinten Matsijs and played a minor role in More's "Utopia"? Finally, Tricot states the figures could refer to popular characters from late medieval folk theater, similar to Pieter Bruegel the Elder's depiction of Valentine and Ourson (the savage'), Bruegel being an inspiration for several paintings by Ensor.
"Gilles et Sauvage" remains a mystery. Are the characters drawn from reality or folklore, or do they represent psychological or social personifications? Who are the other two beings? Like his imagination, Ensor's literary, scientific and historical sources were inexhaustible. The playful painter deprives the viewer of an unambiguous understanding, but instead he offers us the pleasure of the enigma to be unraveled.