Belgian painter, whose unique portrayals of grotesque humanity made him a principal precursor of 20th-century expressionism and surrealism. James Ensor was born in Ostende, Belgium, and, except for three years spent at the Brussels Academy, from 1877 to 1880, he lived in Ostende all his life. His early art works were of traditional subjects-landscapes, still lifes, portraits, interiors-painted in deep, rich colors and lighted by subdued but vibrant light. In the mid-1880s, influenced by the bright color of the impressionists and the grotesque imagery of earlier Flemish masters such as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, James Ensor turned toward avant-garde themes and styles. He took his subject matter principally from Oostende's holiday crowds, which filled him with revulsion and disgust. Portraying individuals as clowns or skeletons or replacing their faces with carnival masks, he represented humanity as stupid, smirking, vain, and loathsome. Outstanding in this vein is his immense canvas Christ's Entry Into Brussels (1888, J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California).
James Ensor deliberately used harsh, garish colors and violent, broken brushstrokes to heighten the violent effect of his subjects. His work had an important influence on 20th-century painting, his lurid subject matter paving the way for surrealism and Dada, and his techniques-particularly his brushwork and his coloristic sense-leading directly to expressionism. He died in Ostende, where there is now an art museum devoted to his work.
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