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The Oyster eater

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James Ensor
Ostend 1860 - Ostend 1949
1882
oil on canvas
240 x 185 x 9 cm
Inventory number 2073

This is one of the main works in the Royal Museum's prominent Ensor collection. It represents a sunny dining room, with a table laid for two, and a young woman who is about to eat an oyster. With The Oyster eater, the young James Ensor continued the series that he had dubbed The Bourgeois Salon, and which consisted in snapshots from the life of the small-town bourgeoisie. In this painting he used bright colours. The red, yellow and orange hues enhance the illusion of sunlight.
It was Ensor's intention to enter The Oyster-eater in the 1882 edition of the three-yearly art exhibition in Antwerp, but the organisers rejected it. So too did 'L'Essor', an exhibition association comprised of graduates of the Brussels academy. Apparently the art circles of the day were not ready for Ensor's revolutionary genius. This prompted Ensor and some of the more progressive members of 'L'Essor' to establish 'Les XX', a group that was more than happy to showcase unconventional work such as The Oyster eater.

Controversial

In its day, this seemingly innocent scene caused quite a stir. To many, the image of a woman enjoying the good things in life - fine wine and oysters - was inappropriate, all the more so as oysters were seen as an aphrodisiac and a metaphor for the female genitalia.

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