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The Intrigue

James Ensor
  • Object number 1856
  • Date 1890
  • Dimensions 90 x 149 cm
  • Medium Oil on canvas
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Schilderij De intrige van James Ensor

Ensor’s Intrigue

This painting is certainly intriguing. A woman has got her man. She presents her ‘conquest’ with a gesture of her hand. In her other hand, she holds a small bouquet. Are they married? Perhaps. Grotesquely comical, sinister faces surround the couple. A coarse-faced woman carries a doll on her shoulder. Or is it a dead child? She points to the man – his fate is uncertain. A skull with a loose jawbone observes the scene. Intense, aggressive colour contrasts and rough, nervous brushstrokes intensify the ugly atmosphere.

Ensor: mask painter

The Intrigue is one of the finest masquerades in James Ensor’s entire oeuvre. Masks customarily hide the true face of their wearers. In Ensor, they function in precisely the opposite way. From 1880 onwards, the ‘peintre des masques’ used these disguises to reveal the inner malice of his characters in scenes that are bizarre and grotesque. Some art historians have interpreted this work as Ensor’s personal vision of marriage. The bride has captured the groom. There’s nowhere for the poor man to go.

Carnival masks from mother’s souvenir shop

Masks are James Ensor’s trademark. From 1880 onwards, they appear regularly in his paintings and drawings. The same ones, in many cases, and often even in the identical position. In almost each case, they are carnival masks that his mother sold in her souvenir shop. Several of them can be seen in old photographs of Ensor in his studio. He might have posed models using masks and costumes.

Grim Reaper

Some of the masks have survived. They now belong to the Ensor House museum in Ostend and to private collections. The ‘living’ skeleton is another recurring element, with or without a scythe. It earned Ensor his local nickname: ‘Pietje de Dood’ or ‘The Grim Reaper’. Ensor wrote of his masks in Les Ecrits de James Ensor: ‘Hounded by imitators, I have retreated to the lonely land of mockery, where reigns the mask, full of violence, light and brilliance. The mask says to me: fresh tones, a sumptuous décor, broad unexpected gestures, intense, exquisite turbulence.’

Ensor’s use of colour

Masks offered James Ensor new expressive possibilities. You only have to look at the abrupt colour transitions in The Intrigue. The aggressive contrasts of unmixed colours are equally striking. Ensor allows light and colour to blend into one another. A technique he learned from the French Impressionists. They used pure colours on the white ground of the canvas. Without the traditional underpainting, and with as few shadows as possible.

Great master of Impressionism

Today’s art experts can’t praise Ensor’s work enough. But it wasn’t always that way. He was long misunderstood and sold very little. Only in his forties did Ensor receive recognition. German artists and critics began to notice his artistic innovations around 1900. And in Belgium, too, he gradually came to be recognized as one of the pioneers of modern art. The KMSKA owns the world’s largest and most important James Ensor collection.

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