Ensor on varnish


The published and unpublished writings of James Ensor inform the researchers of the Ensor Research Project about some of his artistic choices. In the present article, Herwig Todts discusses Ensor's views on the use of varnish.

Oil paintings are commonly finished with a thin layer of varnish to protect the paint layers from dirt, damage and deterioration. Up until well into the 19th century, 'le vernissage' was generally regarded as "le complément presque indispensable de la peinture à l'huile", the almost indispensable final touch in oil painting 1. In France, it was customary for artists to be given an opportunity before the annual Salons to apply a layer of varnish to their paintings. Hence the preview on the eve before the actual opening of an exhibition has come to be known as the vernissage. Rarely if ever, though, does varnish serve merely as a protective layer. After drying, varnish – a liquid solution containing resin-like substances – can profoundly alter the general appearance of a painting: it can make the surface glossy and may add depth, intensity and richness to the colours. The appearance of the varnish itself may also change over time, often turning yellowish. This explains why 19th-century artists and restorers began to experiment with coloured varnish in order to "age" paintings or to create other effects. At the same time, with the rise of Impressionism (initially in France in the 1870s and subsequently around the world), many artists deliberately distanced themselves from the traditional style of painting where depth, volume and cohesion were achieved largely through a tonal representation of light and shading. Instead, the Impressionists used bright, pure colours, and they preferred to leave the paint surface matt rather than to apply a glossy layer of varnish.


In a series of letters to entrepreneur and collector Edgar Picard, dating from the early 20th century, James Ensor reveals his views on the use of varnish. Born in Ensor's native Ostend in 1849, Picard moved in 1894 to Jemeppe-sur-Meuse, where he ran a business. In 1999, Ensor expert Xavier Tricot published fifty-nine letters that Ensor wrote to Edgard Picard between 9 March 1905 and 30 April 1910 – three months before the death of the latter. 2 This correspondence, which has hitherto remained understudied, contains a wealth of information about the life and work of James Ensor. The letters provide insight into Ensor's activities as a painter, an exhibitor, a manager of three stores and landlord of five houses, an investor and a family man. Ensor confides in Picard that he longed to live in the country, far from Ostend and its unpleasant inhabitants. He also presents various works to Picard in the hope that the affluent art enthusiast would wish to add them to his collection. In some instances Ensor succeeded, but other work apparently failed to meet Picard's expectations. Ensor, for his part, did not give in to all of the collector's demands, refusing to sell him The Virgin of Consolation (1892, Private Collection). Picard did however acquire Lady in Black (1881, Royal Museums of Fine Arts Belgium, Brussels), The Drunkards (1883, Belfius Collection, Brussels), Lobster and Crab (1890, previously in the Collection of the Count de Launoit, Brussels), Large View of Mariakerke (1896, previously in the Collection of the Count de Launoit), Skeleton Painter (1896, KMSKA) and View of Ostend (1898, Mu.Zee). In addition, Picard collected etchings and drawings.

James Ensor, Haas en raaf 
1. Hare and Raven (actually a crow. The painting is dated 1883. However, according to the inventory that Ensor drew up in 1908 and amended in 1921, it dates from 1882.
James Ensor, Haas en raaf 
2. Hare and Raven (actually a crow), 1906/08?, canvas 72 x 88 cm. De Vuyst Lokeren Auctions, 8/12/1990, no. 354. Previously in the collections of J. F. Van Missiel, Liège, and Jussiant Antwerp.- As the copy by the artist is so similar to the original, it was for more than half a century regarded as an early work.

The Hare (1883, Private Collection), a still-life featuring a table with a hare, a crow and a pewter bowl, is mentioned in several of the letters. (The original title Hare and Raven, authorised by Ensor himself, is factually incorrect). Presumably Ensor intended to sell the painting to Picard, but it was eventually acquired by Picard’s son in law, Mr Greiner from Seraing. On 4 May 1906, Ensor informs Picard that he is still working on the background of the painting. On 28 June, he writes about an exhibition in Ostend where he intends to display The Hare. Almost a month later, on 21 July, Ensor mentions the painting once again, though the precise meaning of his letter is not immediately clear: "As regards The Hare, I await a decision concerning the red.” The background does indeed feature a striking piece of red clothing. Then, on 8 August, Ensor tells Picard that he has used the original frame of the painting for another picture, and that he will therefore be sending the painting to Jemeppe unframed. The missing frame is mentioned once more in a letter dated 20 August: "As this painting requires framing, the effect will not be perfect. I trust in your good taste in choosing a frame; perhaps black wood or oak would be suitable.”

The impact of varnish

It is unclear whether Ensor's letter of 28 April 1907 also refers to The Hare or to Picard's still-life with Lobster and Crab (1890): "I have applied varnish to the still-life. But I prefer to leave "the drunkards" unvarnished. The subtle and matt grey tones do not require it. You can judge for yourself by wiping the painting with a moist sponge. This has precisely the same effect as varnish. I feel the tonality is more prominent and effective without. The varnished still-life, on the other hand, gains in brightness and gloss. I have altered the drawing without adding weight and I have applied a fixative. I feel the paintings will present well and contrast nicely against the attractive background of your favourite room.” It is unclear which still-life Ensor preferred with a layer of varnish: the primarily tonal Hare from 1883 or the much brighter still-life Lobster and Crab from 1890.
Two years later, in a letter of 18 June 1909, the issue is raised again. Ensor writes: "You inform me that you would like the painting to be varnished. I prefer the grey and matt finish, and fear the gloss will not benefit the darker tones. I find the painting harmonious and like its patina. I recommend light cleaning with filtered water. It suffices to wipe the painting with a sponge moisturised with filtered rainwater.” 4

James Ensor, De oestereetster, KMSKA  
3. The Oyster Eater (previously In the Land of Colours), 1882. Canvas 207 x 105 cm. KMSKA inv. no. 2073. Ensor applied varnish to the painting (and copied it) before sending it to the purchasing commission of Musée des Beaux-Arts de Liège in 1907. The museum rejected the painting, which was subsequently purchased by Albin and Emma Lambotte, who coincidentally had moved from Liège to Antwerp a few years earlier.

Clearly, then, Ensor did not feel that varnishing was indispensable. On the contrary, his insistence that The Drunkards should be left unvarnished testifies to his fastidiousness in this respect. He felt the greyish, dark tones in the painting would become less prominent under a glossy finish. However, Ensor did apply varnish to The Oyster Eater (1882) before presenting the painting to the purchasing commission of the Museum of Fine Arts in Liège in 1907. 5 Further research will have to determine whether Ensor shared with the French Impressionists (and indeed with Belgian neo-Impressionists such as Willy Finch and Theo Van Rysselberghe) a generally dismissive attitude towards varnishing or whether he held a more qualified view. And obviously material and technical scrutiny of Ensor’s paintings may provide details about the presence or absence of original layers of varnish. 6


1 'Peinture', in: La Grande Ecyclopédie. Inventaire Raisonné des sciences, des lettres et des arts, Tome 26, Paris: Société Anonyme de la Grande Encyclopédie, (1899) , p. 254.
2 James ENSOR, Lettres (ed. Xavier Tricot), Brussels: Editions Labor, 1999, p. 530 - 603.
3 Included in Catalogue de l'oeuvre de James Ensor. Toiles et dessins, 1908 and amendments and additions 1921, manuscript, KMSKA Archives.
4 James ENSOR, Lettres (ed. Xavier Tricot), Brussels: Editions Labor, 1999, p. 594.
5 James ENSOR, Lettres, O.c., p. 632-5: it is apparent from the letters of 24 and 28 Dec. 1906 from Ensor to Armand Rassenfosse, graphic artist and illustrator, that Rassenfosse was acting as a mediator for the possible purchase of The Oyster Eater (1882) by the municipal Museum of Fine Arts in Liège. However, before dispatching the work to Liège, Ensor wanted to make a sketch after the painting, a difficult and time-consuming undertaking. "Je tiens beaucoup à posséder une esquisse d'après ma meilleure oeuvre [...]". In a letter from Ensor to Armand Rassenfosse dd. 12/02/1907, the artist announces that the sketch is almost done and that Fierens-Gevaert was keen to exhibit The Oyster Eater (at the Bienial) in Venice, as he felt it was among Ensor’s finest paintings: "il a beaucoup admiré cette peinture et la place au tout premier rang parmi toutes mes oeuvres. Cela me fait bien augurer du bon effet au musée de Liège. Il a longement insisté [...]" Ensor would, in any case, first present the painting to the museum in Liège. He also mentions cursorily that he applied varnish to the work, and to great effect. "J'ai verni le tableau et il fait excellent effet." There is also a second version of the still-life Hare and Raven (actually a crow), which Ensor included as an "étude" in the catalogue of Grégoire LE ROY (James Ensor, Brussels: Van Oest, 1922, p. 191). According to this catalogue (see also note 3), the second version dates from 1908, while Ensor apparently already sent the first version to Picard in 1906 or 1907. The second version of The Oyster Eater was dated 1882 by Ensor, while in the list he drew up for Grégoire LE ROY it is referred to as a "réduction" dating from 1908 (see note 3).
6 The online catalogue of the Research Project Painting Techniques of Impressionism and Postimpressionism/catalogue provides information on the originally unvarnished paintings by Willy Finch, Armand Guillaumin, Henri Edmond Corss, Paul Signac, Mary Cassat, Claude Monet, Henri Martin and Theo Van Rysselbergh in the collection of the Wallraf- Richartz Museum (Fondation Corboud) in Cologne.


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