Like many of his contemporaries, James Ensor quite often reused his canvases. In this article, restorer Karen Bonne explains how he used to proceed.
1. James Ensor, Still-life with Chinoiseries, 1880 (inv.no. 2076), canvas, size: 100.5 x 81.3, photo in natural light
The majority of James Ensor’s paintings have a canvas support. Canvas is very suitable for painting and easy to handle and store. Moreover, high-quality wood for larger paintings was hard to come by and therefore quite expensive. Dealers in painting gear would offer different qualities of canvas, to be purchased on rolls or readily mounted on a frame, and either with or without a prepared ground, as the artist preferred. We shall return to the topic of the nature and composition of such supports in another article, but for now the focus is on a common practice among Ensor’s contemporaries: the reuse of canvases. We shall ignore the rare occasions on which Ensor used the back of an earlier painting to create a new work, as in the case of The Domain of Arnheim (after Edgar Allan Poe, 1890, Private Collection), which was painted on the back of a study of a semi-nude model dating from Ensor’s time at the Fine Arts Academy. 1 Nor shall we discuss his remarkable habit of partially transforming older compositions into new ones, as documented by Marcel De Maeyer in 1963. 2
In 2008, Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Patch of Grass 3 made the world news when a research team led by Professor Koen Janssen (University of Antwerp) and Dr Joris Dik (Technical University of Delft) discovered that it had been painted over a women’s portrait. 4 It had already been established that Van Gogh frequently overpainted his own work and that he often used both sides of the canvas. 5 But this was the first time that scholars had succeeded in revealing an underlying painting in full colour. When the Ensor Research Project got underway, one of Ensor’s still-life paintings was known to have been painted over an earlier nude: the latter is visible through the exterior paint layer, which has become more transparent with age. Since then, researchers have found several other examples though. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp possesses thirty-eight Ensor paintings, thirty-two of which are on canvas. In the first research phase, it was established that at least five of these paintings cover older work. Apart from the self-portrait known as Ensor at his Easel, from 1890(?), the underlying paintings date from early on in Ensor’s career: they were created around 1880-1881, shortly after his time at the Fine Arts Academy in Brussels. Perhaps his reuse of these canvases was driven by financial considerations, as in the case of Vincent Van Gogh, who is known frequently to have overpainted earlier work. But without more extensive research into a wider sample of paintings spanning as broad as possible a period in Ensor’s career, it is impossible to draw firm conclusions in this respect. After all, an equally plausible hypothesis is that the artist was unhappy with the quality of some of the pieces he had produced as a student, so that he decided to overpaint them.
Be that as it may, these works inform us greatly about the artist’s approach. They tell us, for example, that Ensor did not cover the entire paint surface with an even ground before starting anew, but that he worked directly onto the earlier work. It would also appear that he rarely grazed away the underlying paint layer, as was common practice among his contemporaries. Van Gogh applied both techniques frequently after late 1886. 6 It has also emerged that it made little difference to Ensor whether the composition of the original work was horizontally or vertically inclined, as he tended to rotate a canvas before overpainting it. Apparently, then, Ensor did not feel that the very visible and different structure of an initial painting interfered with the build-up of a new, superimposed composition. This in turn tells us that he was able to block out the existing image and that he must have had a very clear conception of the new composition he intended to create.
Closer scrutiny of Still-life with Chinoiseries from 1880 reveals that, hidden behind the vase with the Chinese fan, lie the contours of an old man. His right shoulder and the bridge of his nose are particularly visible. In the photographs below, these are indicated with the aid of Photoshop.
2. James Ensor, Still-life with Chinoiseries, 1880 (inv.no. 2076), canvas, size: 100.5 x 81.3, photo in natural light and with indication of the contours of the underlying composition
Ensor reused part of the existing greyish brown background in his new composition and covered the figure only lightly with loose brushstrokes of strongly diluted paint. The fact that the nude male has since become so clearly discernible is attributable to the ageing of the paint layers and the physical properties of oil paint. Some oils become more transparent with age, an effect that is further enhanced here by the pattern of severe craquelure.
3. Detail of shrinkage cracks under a stereoscopic microscope (8x)
In the microscopic image of a detail, indicated with a circle in the full picture in natural light, it becomes apparent how strongly this pattern distorts the picture. This kind of reaction occurs when the upper layer contains less oil than the underlying layer and is applied when the latter has not fully hardened yet. The oil that is trapped in between the two layers will try to escape, causing drying or shrinkage cracks.
4. James Ensor, Still-life with Chinoiseries, 1880 (inv.no. 2076), canvas, size: 100.5 x 81.3, RX image
X-Ray imaging reveals further details of the underlying composition. The image is clearly identifiable as the profile of an old man with a beard. The painted skin has a high content of lead white, a pigment that lets through very little X-Rays, hence the white areas in the photograph. As a consequence, the upper body of the figure is clearly discernible, particularly as the superimposed still-life contains very little lead white in that area. However, the X-Ray image provides no information about the lower part of the man’s body. Therefore, every square inch of the paint surface was studied under a stereoscopic microscope. This revealed that the most prevalent underlying colour is a deep red, most likely representing a loincloth. Such typically academic compositions were quite common. As a matter of fact there are several other examples in Ensor’s own oeuvre, one of which is very similar to the hidden image on this canvas. It is in the collection of Mu.Zee in Ostend and depicts an old man with a nude upper body. It is not inconceivable that the two paintings represent the same man, who may have acted as a model for the students at the Fine Arts Academy in Brussels.
1 Unpublished observation of April 1990 by Herwig Todts.
2 Marcel DE MAEYER, De genese van masker-, travestie- en skeletmotieven in het oeuvre van James Ensor, in: Bulletin des Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique / Bulletin van de Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België, (Brussels 1963), pp. 69-88.
3 Vincent Van Gogh, Patch of Grass, 1887, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
4 Joris DIK, Koen JANSSENS, Geert VAN DER SNICKT, Luuk VAN DER LOEFF, Karen RICKERS, Marine COTTE, Visualization of a lost painting by Vincent van Gogh using synchrotron radiation based X-ray fluorescence elemental mapping, in: Analytical chemistry, n°16, 2008, pp. 6436-6442.
5 Based freely on research published in the exhibition catalogue ‘Van Gogh aan het werk’ (Marije VELLEKOOP, et al.), Van Gogh Museum Publicaties, 2013
6 Based freely on research published in the exhibition catalogue ‘Van Gogh aan het werk’ (1/05/13 – 12/01/14)