Seven things to know about the most fascinating painter you may have not discovered—yet

How much do you know about James Ensor? If the answer is “not much,” you’re not alone. Though considered a giant of early modern art, the Belgian painter has never been a household name. And even those who know and love Ensor can’t fully explain him. Getty Museum paintings curator Scott Allan, who curated the new exhibition The Scandalous Art of James Ensor, calls his work “so biting, defiant, and bizarre that it still defies categorization and rational analysis.”

In other words, Ensor’s art is profoundly, wonderfully weird—and our new exhibition sets out to explain how it got that way. In honor of the occasion, I asked the curator for seven facts about the artist who’s inspired everything from pop anthems to performance art.

1. He grew up surrounded by carnival masks.
The town of Ostend, Belgium, was famous for its annual carnival festival, and carnival masks were among the many odds and ends sold in the souvenir shop run by Ensor’s family. Starting around 1883, such masks started to make their appearance in his painting—and they soon became a signature device.

2. As an artist, he started out ordinary.
Well, ordinary for the European avant-garde! Fresh out of the Brussels Academy, Ensor quickly distinguished himself as one of the boldest realist or naturalist painters of the day, painting familiar and contemporary subjects with an aggressively painterly technique that shocked some of his more conservative viewers. His early work was mild, however, when compared to the extremely eccentric direction his art would later take.

3. He lived with his parents all his adult life.
Like many prominent late 19th-century artists who maintained an exclusive commitment to their art, Ensor never married or left his parents. He maintained a studio in his childhood home, which was dominated by his mother and aunt (his father died when Ensor was still in his 20s). Proud of his hometown, he lived in Ostend for most of his life, though Brussels would be the center of his art career.

4. He loved, and hated, his competitors.
Ensor had a love-hate relationship with the famed avant-garde artists of his day. He counted Courbet and Manet as heroes, and his obsession with depicting natural light drew him to French Impressionists like Monet. But he reacted strongly against Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, whose paintings took the Impressionistic style toward a more controlled, formulaic realm. Ensor’s proto-Expressionist, deliberately crude, and wildly inventive and chaotic work of the later 1880s can be seen as an aggressive rejection of that “formula.”  

5. He was enormously proud of being Belgian.
Ensor was international in his artistic and cultural interests, but parochial in his horizons, living in Ostend and Brussels his whole life. He loved the coastal landscape and weather of Ostend. He loved Belgian delicacies—oysters, herring, and frites (french fries) all feature in his art. He loved early Netherlandish painters such as Bosch and Brueghel. And he loved local cultural traditions like the Ostend carnival. However, this did not keep him from critiquing Belgium in his paintings. A strong vein of anti-establishment critique runs through his art, which frequently attacked the Belgian monarchy, the military, and the Catholic church.

6. He loved pugs.
Pugs feature in a couple of the works in the exhibition (try to find them!), and Ensor’s family may have kept pugs as pets.

7. He changed modern art.
In his bold colorism and aggressively physical technique, Ensor pushed the expressive limits of painting, becoming an inspiration in the early 20th century for budding Expressionist artists. He was irrepressibly inventive, probing the fantastic, bizarre, grotesque, caricatural, and satirical in a subversive, take-no-prisoners kind of way. Ensor took on all manner of social, cultural, and political hierarchies, ideologies, and pieties, not just with withering sarcasm and irony, but also with a kind of joyful ebullience that shares in the topsy-turvy spirit of Carnival.

His art invites us to escape, if only imaginatively, from the status quo.

The Scandalous Art of James Ensor on view at the Getty Center, June 10 – September 7, 2014.