In the footsteps of Ensor in Ostend

James Ensor, pioneer of modern art and Ostend’s artistic patron saint; a visit to the queen of seaside resorts is an introduction to the great man’s life and work.

James Sidney Edouard, Baron Ensor (1860-1949) is a giant in modern art. He was an outstanding impressionist, a wonderful colorist and had a deliciously quirky style. His body of work, simultaneously experimental and recognizable, is packed with humor, satire and the grotesque.

This modern grandmaster gave the world so much. He drew some of his inexhaustible inspiration from his home base, Ostend, where he was born and took his last breath 89 years later. As a boy, James grew up to the sound of the North Sea, in the little family store that  sold souvenirs, shells and all sorts of playful items, such as carnival masks. The latter would inspire Ensor throughout his life. These masks were a constant in his impressive oeuvre, along with themes such as death and a marked aversion to the bourgeoisie. Think of masterpieces such as The Intrigue.

James Ensor, the artist and the man, is thus inextricably linked to this pearl on the North Sea. His spirit still wanders here. The city is perfect for a journey of discovery into Ensor’s extraordinary universe. This journey starts at one of the cornerstones of his existence: the Ensor House. It was at this building in Vlaanderenstraat, less than 100 meters from the beach, that he spent the last 30 years of his life. And it is where many of his unforgettable works came into being. Today, this building is a museum and visitor center dedicated to him. The Ensor House takes you into the eventful life and influential oeuvre of the artist. Thanks to the original furniture, impressive, full-size reproductions and documentary presentations, you will take on his life, as it were: you’ll stand where he stood, you’ll sit where he sat.

Nowhere will you get closer to Ensor than in this house, although the journey only begins here. Ostend has a host of other mementos from his time. For example, he lived here during the Belle Époque, the transition from the 19th century to the 20th century. In those opulent times, the sky really did seem to be the limit. In the Belle Époque district, you can still see the stately façades and Art Nouveau architecture that Ensor would have strolled by in his time. Another highlight are the Royal Galleries along the seafront. In his day, the grandmaster visited them in search of inspiration under the stately, covered colonnade.

From there you go on to another amazing icon: Mu.Zee. For a long time, this building was an innovative, cooperative supermarket. Today, it is a magnificent modern and contemporary art museum. Ostend’s local and world star James Ensor is of course celebrated there. You’ll find a selection of his works, including Self-portrait with flowered hat. This piece is right up there with works by other modern and contemporary masters. The selection is exciting and full of surprises – just like James Ensor himself.

The Ensor House takes you into the eventful life and influential oeuvre of the artist
The Ensor House takes you into the eventful life and influential oeuvre of the artist, © Toerisme Oostende vzw – Nick Decombel Fotografie.

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