Many myths surround the work of James Ensor. Indeed, the artist encouraged them. Like the idea that Ensor spent a long time pondering his compositions and often altered them. The Ensor Research Project explores the truth behind these myths. By going back to basics, to the work itself.  

The Ensor Research Project’s central focus is on the creative process: from idea to finished painting. The researchers try in different ways to discover how Ensor set about working on a painting and what he meant by it, studying the KMSKA’s own collection and also collections held by other museums. The project is fundamental to establishing the KMSKA as the James Ensor centre of expertise.      

While Ensor expert Herwig Todts puzzles over Ensor’s letters, Annelies Rios-Casier analyses the layers of paint. Their understanding of Ensor’s working method grows year on year.

James Ensor’s words

The researchers are sifting through the archives in search of texts written by James Ensor. He was an enthusiastic writer of letters, postcards, speeches and other texts for public consumption. All these together provide insight into his cherished artistic and social ideas and opinions. Why did Ensor use masks to reveal a person’s true identity? Why does his work contain so much satire? Why did he depict himself so often? Why did he cultivate the image of  misunderstood artist? 

The ERP tries to find the answer to such questions by studying Ensor himself.

Een brief van James Ensor aan kunstpaus Paul-Gustave Van Hecke (archief KMSKA)
A letter from James Ensor to art authority Paul-Gustave Van Hecke - KMSKA archive

Specialized photography

Another branch of the Ensor Research Project takes each painting in the collection in turn and penetrates the layers of paint, using specialized imaging technology such as infrared, X-rays and various fluorescence techniques. Each method sheds light on a different aspect of the creative process. While one process shows the pigments used, another reveals the underdrawing.   

The Oyster Eater before restoration
UV image of The Oyster Eater
Infrared image of The Oyster Eater

Furthermore, each restoration spawns a wealth of information. To restore a painting to its former glory, the restorer needs to study Ensor’s working method. Apart from the specialized images, the restorer sees every millimetre of the work before him, every brushstroke, every grain of sand. 

Grains of sand, indeed! The team found them on Ensor’s work, proof that he really did paint outdoors, on the beach.

James Ensor’s bathing machine
The microscope revealed grains of sand in the painting

Art history

The last pillar supporting the research is art history. However unique James Ensor may be as an artist, inspiration does not appear out of thin air. The researchers analyse Ensor’s iconography and style and compare them to those of contemporaries and predecessors. Literature proves a rich source of ideas. How critics, fellow artists and the public reacted to Ensor’s work tells us a great deal about the time in which he lived, the position he held both as an artist and a citizen. What place does Ensor really occupy in the long history of art? How was he innovative?  

The answers to the many research questions should provide a complete picture of James Ensor, the artist and the man.

Our Ensor expert Herwig Todts published his findings in a voluminous monography, ‘James Ensor, Occasional Modernist. Ensor’s Artistic and Social Ideas and the Interpretation of his Art’.

If that scholarly publication is a little too lengthy for you, be sure to keep an eye on our communication channels for succinct articles on the research findings. 

The Ensor Research Project in the exhibition ‘Ensor’s Wildest Dreams’

The KMSKA is mounting one of the largest Belgian exhibitions about Ensor since the retrospective held at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in 1999. In the autumn of 2024, James Ensor will take over the KMSKA.

James Ensor’s art reflects the major, meteoric artistic and cultural-historical changes that took place around the end of the 19th century. Yet insufficient research has been carried out into the similarities between Ensor’s work and that of, for instance, Edvard Munch, Ernst Josephson and Emile Nolde. However, it is precisely this international context that allows us to better evaluate the specific qualities of Ensor’s art. It is one of the starting points for ‘Ensor’s Wildest Dreams’ and the KMSKA’s Ensor Research Project.  

The research project will also feature in the exhibition. Using several of Ensor’s crucial works, including The Oyster Eater, Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise and The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the exhibition will home in on the historical, creative and technical genesis of the artist’s changes of direction.

Another of the KMSKA’s focus points is the artist’s creative process: 'Ensor at work'. As part of the Ensor Research Project, the museum is making materials science images and digitizing egodocuments. They provide answers to questions about Ensor’s choice and use of materials, changing technique and composition building. So this part offers the general public a more in-depth experience of Ensor’s entire output. 

Ensor’s work is more relevant than ever. It is 'in your face' and at the same time introverted, impenetrable, revealing and concealing, sugary-sweet and garishly authentic, droll, whimsical and malicious.