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Astonishment of the Mask Wouse

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James Ensor
Ostend 1860 - Ostend 1949
1889
oil on canvas
109 x 131.5 cm
Inventory number 2042

In 1886, James Ensor broke with the realistic style he had previously applied in The Oyster-eater and in the Bourgeois Salon. Through the Brussels art circle of ‘Les XX’, he became acquainted with the symbolism of Odilon Redon and other innovators. This inspired him to explore the possibilities of the rational and the irrational. He also drew inspiration from artists such as Rembrandt and Goya, and from Japonism and caricature. Astonishment of the Mask Wouse is a good illustration of his new approach. The interior is based on his studio up in the attic of the parental home in Ostend. Scattered across the floor are carnival items: clothing, headgear, musical instruments, masks and even a skull. Left and right in the picture, some of the masks have come to life. The central figure has an eerie, unreal quality. It is a grotesque old lady who appears to be flaunting herself like the seductive girl that perhaps she once was. She is a caricature of the fashionable ladies that were a favourite subject matter of many of Ensor's peers.

Who is Wouse?

Ensor never clarified the identity of Wouse. The name may refer to the grotesque woman or to the dark figure that enters into the frame. Nor is it clear who these creatures lying at the lady's feet are.

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