A large skeletal flying figure of Death with reptilelike feet brandishes an enormous, menacing scythe over the swarming mob of people jamming the streets below. The figures, most of whom are portrayed only by grimacing masklike faces, flee the oncoming catastrophe. In the building at the right we glimpse a nude woman toasting her companions—a hint of the debauchery, cruelty, and indifference that Ensor perceived in society. Overhead a radiating sun, centered between winged, haloed beings and frightened figures engulfed in flames, suggests heaven, hell, and the Day of Judgment.
Ensor's nightmarish, satiric visions, which reveal a preoccupation with the macabre and with death, were influenced by earlier Flemish art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, specifically that of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. Ensor's obsession with death and impermanence led him to printmaking. As he stated, "I dread the fragility of painting. I want to survive and I think of solid copper plates, of unalterable inks . . . of faithful printing, and I am adopting etching as a means of expression." Indeed, between 1886 and 1905 Ensor was a prolific printmaker, who executed 134 prints.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 52.