James Ensor

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James EnsorThe Baths at Ostend© ADAGP, Paris © Fondation Challenges

Early Life in Ostend


James Sidney Edward Ensor was born in 1860 in the town of Ostend, in Belgium. This small fishing village acquired something of a reputation in 1834, when King Leopold I made his summer residence there, and went on to become a very fashionable and lively seaside resort in the following decades.
It was in Ostend that James' father, James Frederic, a cultured Englishman, met his mother, Marie Catherine Haegheman, a local girl from a middle class family that owned a souvenir and curiosity shop. The shop was to provide a livelihood for the Ensor family, and the future painter grew up in this setting of "shells, lace, rare stuffed fish, old books, engravings, weapons, Chinese porcelain, an inextricable jumble of miscellaneous objects" (letter from Ensor to Louis Delattre, 4 August 1898). Throughout the exhibition there are masks, shells, a mermaid, etc., that came from the Ensor shop and family home.

James EnsorShells and Shellfish© ADAGP, Paris © Von der Heydt Museum Wuppertal. Photo Gerd Neumann
This unusual environment had a long-lasting and decisive influence on the painter, as he would later acknowledge: "My childhood was filled with fantastic dreams and visits to my grandmother's shop, with its iridescent glow reflecting from the shells, its sumptuous lace, strange stuffed animals and the dreadful weapons of savages that used to terrify me. [...] This extraordinary environment certainly developed my artistic faculties". As soon as his talent began to reveal itself, the young artist was undoubtedly able to rely on the support of his father, a sensitive, intellectual man.

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