James Ensor in bird’s-eye view - Episode 1
James Ensor was undisputedly the greatest Belgian modernist. In this episode we are going back to his roots in Ostend.
A young woman eats oysters and drinks fine wine. The table is set for two, but the chair opposite her is empty and a carelessly abandoned napkin lies next to a bright yellow lemon. Her absent fellow diner has obviously been enjoying the different wines too. Who was he or she? Ensor himself, perhaps, before retreating behind his easel? It doesn’t really matter, in fact: as far as the artist was concerned, experiment and innovation are more important here than the underlying narrative. The finished result has become an iconic work in the history of Belgian modern art.
The woman at the table is Ensor’s sister Mitche, who is enjoying her taste of the good life in a room at their parents’ house in Ostend. Connoisseurs have pored over the scene for years. Does the empty chair signify some kind of drama? Do the oysters have erotic connotations? Is Ensor suggesting a young woman who yearns for different kinds of pleasure? Not if the artist’s friend and promoter Emile Verhaeren is to be believed. According to him, the painting is a still life. And maybe it is: Ensor initially called the work In the Land of Colour – a name that reflects the repetition, variation and contrast of the colours and the way the artist applies the paint smoothly and thinly in one place, while positively trowelling it on in another.
See how the colours zing from the canvas! The Oyster Eater is one big experiment – something that was typical of Ensor, whose ambition was to be the leading innovator within Belgian art. He read about the Impressionists in the newspapers: how they played with light and used colour to create shadows. Ensor was keen to do something similar. But how to go about it when he’d never actually seen an Impressionist painting? What he did was to combine his urge to innovate with his academic training to create something new for Belgium. Verhaeren called it ‘le premier tableau vraiment clair’ – the first truly bright painting. The Oyster Eater leans towards Impressionism, but does not go all the way: it lies somewhere in between. And that’s pure Ensor.
The canvas caused a real stir. A young bourgeois lady unashamedly enjoying oysters and wine? To many people at the end of the 19th century, it was downright immoral. The Oyster Eater was intended for the triennial exhibition of fine arts in Antwerp in 1882, but the Antwerp Salon refused to exhibit it. The following year, the artists’ society L’Essor in Brussels turned it down as well. The museums of art in Liège and Brussels, meanwhile, decided not to purchase the work, also citing its ‘inappropriately’ large format. Gigantic canvases like this had traditionally been reserved for noteworthy individuals or events, not some ordinary middle-class woman.
Ensor was unable to present the canvas in public until 1886, when it finally featured at the exhibition of the artists’ association Les XX in Brussels, of which he was a member. It was his artist-friends too who persuaded him to rename the work. So it was that The Oyster Eater was born. The painting was bought in 1910 by the Liège-Antwerp collectors Albin and Emma Lambotte, who were immense admirers of Ensor. They sold a large part of their collection of his work to the KMSKA in 1927, including The Oyster Eater. And a good thing too: the canvas is generally regarded nowadays as a masterpiece: a milestone in modern art and part of Belgium’s collective memory.