James Ensor: Masquerading Master of the Grotesque

Stephanie Avila

From grotesque beasts masquerading as a street band to anonymous figures joining a grand masquerade-cum-street-festival, Belgian artist James Ensor was a master of the unsettling and the strange.
Born in 1860 in Brussels to an English father and a Belgian mother, James Ensor spent the vast majority of his life in Ostend. Ensor lived and worked attended the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels; for the next 37 years, he worked out of his studio in the attic of his parents’ curiosity shop. A painter and printmaker, through most of his life and career, Ensor considered himself an artist on the fringe of society even as society turned to embrace him. By the time of his death in 1949, King Albert had granted him a baronial title, his works had been the subject of major exhibitions and he even had a a musical composition, the ‘James Ensor Suite’ by Flor Alpaerts, named after him.

James Ensor in his Studio, 1895

He is particularly known for his paintings of grotesque figures with their faces and identities hidden behind masks. Irreverent and sardonic, Ensor’s figures appear as caricatures — or actors playing their assigned roles — within the grand farcical performance of modern life.
Ensor’s best known work is Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889. The subject of the work is, nominally, the city’s welcoming of the anointed King Jesus into modern Brussels. Ensor seems to draw from a mix of festival imagery and images of royal entry processions — a long tradition that stretches back to the 16th and 17th centuries in which cities would document the Joyeuse Entrées of their rulers through paintings and prints.
Likewise, the figure of Christ in religious imagery is, of course, nothing new. Jesus as a baby in a manger, Jesus and his mother Mary, Jesus displaying his authority over nature, over sickness, over death, Jesus crucified on a cross — the images permeate the history of European art and filled the cathedrals of Ensor’s native Belgium.
In Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, the atmosphere appears fittingly festive. The grand avenue is festooned with banners filled with slogans, a brass band, marching soldiers that look rather like wooden toys. And then there is the crowd. Teeming, swarming, seething with energy, the crowd spills into the streets of Brussels to, as the title would suggest, celebrate the entry of Christ into Brussels.

James Ensor, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, Oil on canvas 99 1/2 x 169 1/2 in., J. Paul Getty Musuem, 1888

However, the scene is surreal, not only because the scene pictured is obviously constructed. More a spectacle than entry celebration, Ensor’s painting turns the academic — and Flemish — traditions of royal and religious painting on their heads. Rather than facing the entering Christ, ghoulish masks and equally mask-like faces peer out of the work at the viewer. Ensor’s composition with a strong perspectival line creates the unnerving sense that the whole cacophonous crowd threatens to rupture out of the frame into our viewing space. Rather than celebratory, the mood is discordant and eerily threatening. The canvas is too full, too red, too chaotic.
Some have suggested that Ensor — who was non-religious — equated himself with the suffering, ignored figure of Christ in the centre of the painting. According to the J. Paul Getty Musuem, which owns the work, ‘The haloed Christ at the center of the turbulence is in part a self-portrait: mostly ignored, a precarious, isolated visionary amidst the herdlike masses of modern society.’ Whether this was the artist’s intention of not, in several of his self-portraits, Ensor does indeed portray the artist as a tortured being, crucified on a cross, decapitated and served up on a platter, being ripped apart like a piece of herring, as a skeleton in front of his easel.
However, this belied the artist’s actual position within the art world and society. By the time of his death, James Ensor had become one of the most celebrated Belgian artists of his time. Since then, he has been seen as an important precursor to the modern art movements of the 20th century, having bridged the gap between 19th century Realism and 20th century Expressionism.
By Stephanie Avila

culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider


women sitting on iceberg


2 years.


It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.


I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.