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Object details

The Oyster Eater
205 × 150,5 cm
Inventory number: 
lower right: J. ENSOR/ 1882

More about this work

Colour in the starring role
This large-scale canvas is a milestone in Belgian painting, although it was not initially recognised as such. When James Ensor tried to have it exhibited in Antwerp and Brussels in his early twenties, it was consistently rejected. The painting did not make its debut in the Belgian capital until 1886, three years later. Interest then faded, and the canvas was rolled up again and stored away in Ensor’s studio until 1901, when it could finally be admired in Paris.
The Oyster Eater belongs to a series of works with ‘stylish women’, as one of Ensor’s friends dubbed them. A young woman is seated at a round table, enjoying her meal and the sunlight that is flooding into the room. She does not seem aware of the painter’s presence. This is Mitche, Ensor’s younger sister by one year, full name Marie Caroline Emma. She is pictured alone, although the table is set for two. A napkin is draped over the empty chair in the foreground.
This is not a portrait. Or rather, it is much more than just a portrait: perhaps we ought to call it a still life? Like other still-life painters, Ensor experimented with colours and their vibrant interplay, and with thick and thin accents of paint. Colours take the starring role, with the painter as their consummate director. The emphatically present white of the tablecloth, napkins and the shawl forms the ground, as it were, for this colourful realm.
Early fans of The Oyster Eater – the celebrated poet Emile Verhaeren among them – saw it as the first Impressionist canvas in Belgium. Others considered the painting trivial and sloppily executed: shrill and with a wonky perspective – not the first time a revolutionary work in art history would be greeted with incomprehension. The Oyster Eater found its way into the KMSKA through a private owner and female friend of Ensor, who had purchased it.

Acquisition history

Restoration sponsored by Fonds Baillet Latour, 2020
purchase: Albin Lambotte, 1927

Copyright and legal

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