James Ensor (Belgian, 1860–1949) was a painter and printmaker, and an important influence on Expressionism and Surrealism. Born in Brussels to English parents, Ensor studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts between 1877 and 1880. He began his artistic career as a portrait painter, but soon became involved with the avant-garde group Les XX (the twenty), whose goal was to promote new artistic developments in Europe. Although Ensor was considered the group’s leader and founder, he had sharp differences of opinion with other group members. In addition, the group was not well received by critics, and disbanded after a decade.
Ensor was not only a talented colorist, but also one of the great Realists of the 19th century. From 1876 to 1884, he adhered to the plein aire movement that was predominant in European Realism, absent of aesthetic, literary, and moral conventions. From 1885 until 1890, he experimented with studies of light combined with associative or surreal figures, in which he mixed autobiographical and social themes.
His most well-known works were his depictions of humorous masked figures and grotesque characters, which served as an inspiration for the German Expressionists.
Today, his work can be found in many prestigious institutions around the world, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Koninklijk Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Belgium.