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The Intrigue

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James Ensor
Ostend 1860 - Ostend 1949
1890
oil on canvas
89.5 x 149 cm
Inventory number 1856

As a painter of the bizarre and the grotesque, James Ensor was a true pioneer of modern art. From around 1880, he began to incorporate the motif of disguise into his work, which earned him the nickname of 'the painter of masks'. However, in an ironic reversal, Ensor's masks reveal rather than conceal the true face of their wearers. One of the best masquerades in his oeuvre is undoubtedly The Intrigue. A woman appears to have hooked a suitor: she is holding a bouquet, suggesting that the couple are newly-weds. Sinister masks encircle the two. A peasant woman has a doll on her shoulder that resembles a dead child. She points at the man at the centre of the composition. A skeleton figure with a loose-hanging jaw looks on. The fate of the groom is uncertain. The stark, almost aggressive colour contrasts and the crude, nervous brushwork enhance the eerie atmosphere.

Failed marriage

Some art historians interpret this work as an expression of Ensor's attitude towards marriage: the groom is hooked by the bride and unable to get away. According to Ensor expert Libby Tannenbaum, The Intrigue is a reference to the failed marriage of Ensor's sister Mitche to a German-Chinese art dealer and the birth of their daughter Alexandrine. However, that marriage took place in 1892, while the painting is dated 1890. On the other hand, Ensor may have dated it incorrectly to mislead his critics and the viewers.

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