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About the artwork

Picture of the Month for July comes on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, along with 33 etchings and drawings.

The masks that cluster and grimace around the woman’s face are perhaps the least surprising elements in this picture; least surprising, that is, in view of the painter’s background. Indeed, it would have been more surprising had such imagery not been utilised in his art. 

James Sidney Ensor was the son of an English engineer, and a Belgian woman, Maria Catherina Haegheman, whose family ran a novelty shop in Ostend. The business catered for the vast Carnival which transformed the dour, grey off-season seaside town every year before Lent. Ensor spent practically his entire life surrounded by the grotesque masks which the Haegheman family’s Wunderkammer offered for sale or hire to revellers. But the garish, papier maché jollity of the window displays masked a grim domestic life within. Ensor’s father was an alcoholic and a bankrupt, financially dependent on his wife’s family. He would eventually die from exposure, drunk in an Ostend doorway.

‘Ensor lived with beings who were puerile, fanciful, extraordinary, grotesque, gloomy, macabre’, Emile Verhaeren, a friend, wrote of him. ‘His art became savage. His terrifying puppets started to convey horror rather than joy. Even when their tawdry finery was pink and white, they seemed to be clothed in such distress, to embody such decay and to represent such ruin that they could never elicit laughter again, never… Death joined the dance… The skeleton became in turn a Pierrot, a tramp, a freak. The living mask and the death’s head became indistinguishable. These masks were not reminiscent of a carnival in… Flanders but of a hell on earth.’  After his mother’s death he kept the shop and displayed its merchandise but never opened it for business. It was as if he needed the bizarre clutter to maintain his vision of the world. ‘When he was immersed in illusion,’ Verhaeren wrote, ‘such a collection of faces and attitudes, ironies and anxieties, must certainly have represented life to him. And life seemed atrocious, deplorable, hostile. Life taught him the misanthropy that only jokes, laughter and sarcasm could cure.’

The genesis of ‘Old Lady with Masks’ is a mystery. One story has it that Ensor painted a conventional portrait of his hairdresser’s mother. This was exhibited in 1888 as ‘Portrait of Mme. B’. The sitter, however, was not satisfied with the likeness and refused to pay for it. In revenge Ensor disfigured the face with buck teeth, black spots and chin hair. He then surrounded the victim with a jostling crowd of leering carnival masks with a death’s head thrown into the top right corner for good measure. Three years later, in 1891, he exhibited the mockery re-titled ‘Theatre of Masks or Bouquet d’artifice’.

There is an alternative story, that the sitter who refused to pay and whose portrait was ‘modified’ in revenge, was the poet and novelist Neel Doff. Of Dutch origin, she wrote what was described as ‘proletarian literature’ and was known as the ‘Dostoyevsky of the North’. Ensor’s subtitle, Bouquet d’artifice, might be explained as a pejorative comment on her ‘proletarian’ credentials. Certain details, however, militate against the identification. Neel Doff was a famous beauty and since she would have been only thirty at the time of the portrait, Ensor would have had to coarsen the features to a considerable extent, far greater than the addition of a few superficial facial blemishes. Then there is the original 1888 title: Portrait of Mme. B. She did not marry the journalist Fernand Brouez for another eight years.