An eccentric visionary, James Ensor created images that defy categorization. After two frustrating years at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, he returned to his hometown of Ostend and set up a studio in the attic of his family’s home and souvenir shop. There he continued his education, studying Old Masters such as Breugel and Bosch, copying etchings by Rembrandt and Goya, and making sketches depicting his family’s disquieting domestic life. Although Ensor was a member of the Belgian avant-garde group Les Vingt (The Twenty) between 1883 and 1893, he had a pained and tumultuous relationship with his fellow artists and critics.
In addition to painting, Ensor made some one hundred forty prints over the course of his career, most of which were etchings completed in an intense burst of activity at the turn of the century. His obsession with death, and his desire to defy it through his art, contributed to his embrace of etching. He wrote, “I want to survive and I think of solid copperplates, of unalterable inks … of faithful printing, and I am adopting etching as a means of expression.”
Current political events, literary themes, the life of Christ, and the popular spectacle of the annual carnivals in Belgium were among Ensor’s favorite subjects. Deeply concerned with political and social injustice, he ridiculed the Church, the military, and the bourgeoisie. The Entrance of Christ into Brussels updates the story of Christ, giving it contemporary relevance by depicting the masses holding banners, political signs, and advertisements. The Assassination is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic tale The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar of 1845, which tells the gruesome story of a hypnotist trying to arrest the process of death by hypnotizing a dying man.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Harper Montgomery and Sarah Suzuki, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 49.