James Ensor - Drawings and etchings - 24 February until 17 April 2021


”Reflexions on art.
Vision changes by observing. The first vision, that of the vulgar, is the simple, dry line, without a search for colour. The second phase is that in which the more exercised eye discerns the values of tones and their delicacies; it is already less understood by the vulgar.
The last is the one where the artist sees the subtleties and multiple plays of light, its planes, its gravitations. This progressive research modifies the primitive vision, and the line suffers and becomes secondary. This vision will be poorly understood. It requires long observation, careful study. The vulgar will only discern disorder, chaos, incorrectness. And so art evolved from the line of the Gothic through the colour and movement of the Renaissance, to arrive at the Modern Light.”

Thirty early drawings (1878-1885) show how intensely the young Ensor practices his art. Anything his eye sees can become the object of a drawing. The objects in the interior of the house, family and friends in their daily activities and fragments of street scenes. While drawing and sketching, Ensor, the attentive observer, builds the fundamentals of a unique style, free from all conventions.

“For three years in the evening I’d draw after the models from Antiquity, during the day I painted  from living models, at night I composed or mapped my dreams.
In 1877 I entered the Brussels Academy. In 1880 I left that myopic loft, to follow my fantasy and my painterly duty to make light.”

At the Brussels academy, 17-year-old Ensor is not inclined to follow the directions of his teachers, but the traditional academic training has nevertheless given him a technical baggage and craftsmanship. In this exhibit there are four large charcoal drawings after plaster replicas of statues from the Antiquity. When in 1880 he returns to Ostend, Ensor draws a series of “Ostend types”. They are realistic portraits of working class people, such as “La laveuse” (1880) and “Le charbonnier” (1882), in large format. Technically masterful portraits.

“And, all at once the light comes bouncing in, like a child that topples over tables, transforms bottles and glasses, shattering windows and dinnerware.”

Parallel to this, he develops his own original style through the frequent sketching. The sketch sheets from 1880 to c. 1885 show themselves as a laboratory where the artist experiments and seeks new possibilities of expression.

In the family house in Ostend, where his mother and aunt run a curiosity shop on the ground floor, he lives in a closed world. He engages in an intense dialogue with the immediate inside and outside environment.

The house of the Ensor family is like a colorful treasure room filled with objects and ornaments. Each object from everyday life is worthy of the attention of the passionate eye of the artist, fascinated by form and light: a candlestick, a glass, the oil lamp, the kitchen sink.

“We’ve resumed our vegetative existence from before. Aunt Mimi sleeps, my mother is a bit off-color after dinner. Mitche writes.”

Mother, aunt and sister are the obvious models for the artist, which he draws in quick, nervous movements while writing, sewing, sleeping or sitting at the piano.
He depicts Willy Finch, with whom he sometimes shares his studio, while painting, seen from the back.

Many sketches are heterogeneous sheets. By reworking earlier sketches different fragments are confronted in one sheet. Which sometimes creates enigmatic scenes.

“Looking out chest-high from the large window, life diminished a large part of the city, and a few vistas of the countryside were extraordinarily rounding out a magnificent panorama. Again I sketched in watercolor, silhouettes and types of walkers, sailors, masked and elegant.”

Ensor observes the bustle of street-life from the window of his studio. In bird's eye view he captures coachmen, horses, passers-by, civilians, sometimes in lines, sometimes as a volume. Subjects are often placed one next to the other without attaching importance to proportions or scale.

This stacking technique demonstrates Ensor's artistic freedom and ability to associate. He will use the same method later on in his fantastic imaginary subjects. Sketching scenes as seen from on high will also continue in later street views with the flood of humanity as a theme, in which the individual figure, although insignificant, will always be expressive.


“My intention is to go on working for a long time yet so that generations to come may hear me. My intention is to survive, and I think of the solid copper plate, the unalterable ink, easy reproduction, faithful prints, and I adopt etching as a means of expression."

Ensor regarded his etchings as fully-fledged autonomous works of art. From 1885 on his artistic creation took a decisive turn and he also realized his first etchings then. Realistic subjects decrease disappear and he turns to the grotesque and the satirical. In 10 years, he produces an exceptional graphic oeuvre, original and innovative unlike any other.
Twenty-six etchings are comprised in this exhibition, including “La Cathédrale” (1886 & 1896), “L'archer terrible” (1888), “Les gendarmes” (1888), “Les bons juges” (1894), and “Squelettes se chauffants (1895).

24 February - 3 March
Daily 10 am - 7 pm
Due to Covid-19 measures, during this period the exhibition will only be accessible upon reservation.
Reservations can be made via our website.

Closed from 4 until 8 March

9 March - 17 April
By appointment only

Tuesday to Saturday 10-12 am and 2-6 pm
Closed on Sundays and Mondays

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