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Object details

Astonishment of the Mask Wouse
109 × 131,5 cm
Inventory number: 
lower left: Ensor 1889

More about this work

Enigmatic masquerade
James Ensor’s most striking contribution to the visual language of Western painting is the leading role he gave in his work to fantastical masks without real bodies. After 1888, they would become his‘ trademark’. Masks offered the artist an excellent means by which to expose his hypocritical, sly and opportunistic fellow human beings. Yet at the same time, these lifeless objects could be comical, benign and a source of humour to him. He combined them on several occasions with skeletons, the sort of thing people had become accustomed to in the Symbolist painting of his time.
On this canvas, items of clothing, musical instruments and several carnival masks lie scattered across the floorboards of Ensor’s attic studio. It resembles an arranged still life. A masked, apparently startled and ghostly figure looms up on the left, opposite two more masks at eye level on the right. The main figure and the brown-faced apparition on the far left, who looks equally astonished, bring the other masks to life. A skeleton is holding up a candle in the foreground.
So which one is the ‘Wouse’ named in the title? And how are we to interpret the scene? The simple answer is that we do not know. The principal character seems to be a parody of a femme fatale, parading stylishly with her fine black leather gloves, elegant red parasol, gossamer blue dress and expensive Indian shawl, from which a baby’s head pokes out. A weird snot bubble dangles from her nose and she is wearing a lower-class cap under her hat. Are the musicians at her feet drunk and worn-out from singing? Or the lifeless victims of her dubious charms? There are portraits from the seventeenth century in particular of noblewomen attended by a black servant. Might they have been an inspiration to Ensor here? Or is he depicting some kind of literary anecdote precisely what many contemporaries were trying to bansih from painting at the time?

Acquisition history

auction: J. Burthoul, 1926

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