Intrede van Christus in Brussel.

James Ensor, Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889, 1888-1899 | Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum

Arts & Sciences
Read aloud

Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 by James Ensor

Innovation in the Visual Arts

Christ’s entry into Brussels in 1889 is the most ambitious work of the Ostend artist James Ensor (1860-1949). The painting illustrates the new course taken by Belgian art at the end of the 19th century.

Read aloud

The quality of renewal resided in the manner of painting: bright, expressive colours, simplified forms and figures. But also the iconography and the critical message were revolutionary for their time. In this monumental work Ensor interpreted the entry of Christ into Jerusalem, a Biblical story that everyone knew in the Catholic Belgium of those days. He transposed the story to Brussels and presented the entry as a carnival parade with clowns, skeletons and masked figures, a symbol of human hypocrisy. Banners with slogans like ‘vive la sociale’ refer to the struggle of the workers’ movement at the time for more rights. In the centre, depicted small, is Jesus. Ensor was fond of identifying with that figure, since Jesus, like himself, was misunderstood by the masses. With this painting Ensor became one of the precursors of Expressionism. Like Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh.

Ensor met bloemenhoed.

Ostende, Mu.ZEE

James Ensor, Self-Portrait with Flowered Hat, 1883.

Read aloud

Innovation in the Visual Arts

In the second half of the 19th century the Belgian art world was divided. Established artists like Gustaaf Wappers and Nicaise De Keyser painted scenes that glorified Belgian history. Their style was inspired by famous predecessors like Peter Paul Rubens and was characterised by clearly delineated shapes, idealised figures and harmonious compositions.

James Ensor from Ostend was the son of an English father and a Flemish mother. He was part of a generation of internationally orientated artists who were searching for a different visual language. Realists wanted to present life as it was. Impressionists experimented with light and colour. With Symbolists emotion, expression and spirituality were central. Precursors of Expressionism wanted mainly to express a feeling, with simplified forms and lively colours. In Ensor’s work elements of all those movements can be found.

Paris was the European centre of artistic renewal, but Brussels also attracted foreign artists. Supporters of artistic freedom, like Ensor, Fernand Khnopff and Théo Van Rysselberghe, gathered in artistic circles like Les XX. They organised their own exhibitions, away from the official shows where their work was often not welcome. They were surrounded by writers and intellectuals who in magazines like L’Art moderne defended the renewal in art. The progressive urban elite bought their work and supported artists financially.

Focal points

Meunier, het grauwvuur.

Leuven, Museum M

Constantin Meunier (1831-1905), The Damp Explosion, 1888-1889. This work shows Meunier’s social involvement. A distraught mother sits bent over her son, who has been killed in the mine disaster in Quaregnon (Hainaut) in 1887.

Read aloud

Social Engagement

In the 1860s and 1870s change slowly set in in the Belgian visual arts world. The Realism that was on the rise in France, also caused a new wind to blow here. In contrast to the idealised scenes, the realists wanted to show the real world. They painted landscapes and seascapes in dark colours and thick paint layers. Or the hard life in the countryside and in the town: ploughing farmworkers, poor fishermen, toiling workers…

Artists and their public generally belong to the elite and the urban middle class. So why that preference for the poorer classes? Well-known realists like Eugène Laermans and Constantin Meunier were strongly socially engaged. They frequented circles of left-wing intellectuals and collaborated on Socialist publications. With their art they attacked social misery and inequality. At the same time realistic works of art glowed with admiration for the hard work of workers, tradesmen and farm workers.

From the 1880s on artists experimented with different ways of painting. The social themes, however, kept coming back. We see that with James Ensor too. At the beginning of his career, in the 1880s, he painted a lot of realistic sea and townscapes and also social subjects like The Drunkards. In his later expressionist oeuvre that social criticism kept returning.

Hoofdthema in Permekes oeuvre was het boerenleven. Ruw en zwaar aangebrachte verf en hoekige, expressieve vervormingen benadrukken de monumentaliteit van zijn figuren in directe verbondenheid met de aarde.

Ostend, Mu.ZEE,, photographer Steven Decroos

Constant Permeke, Peasant Family with Cat, 1928. The main theme in Permeke’s oeuvre was farming life. Roughly and heavily applied paint and angular, expressive distortions stress the monumentality of his figures, who stand in direct solidarity with the earth.

Read aloud

Constant Permeke and Flemish Expressionism

After 1900 Expressionism developed further. One of the central figures in Belgium was Constant Permeke (1886-1952). He studied at the academies of Bruges and Ghent and joined the artistic colony of Sint-Martens-Latem. From 1909 to 1912 Permeke lived permanently in the village on the Lys. He began to experiment with a cruder, impulsive painting technique. In 1912 he returned to his hometown of Ostend and struck up a friendship with James Ensor. Ensor showed Permeke the pictural potential of an expressive touch, rough paint material and free use of colour.

Many artists from Latem spent the First World War abroad – Permeke in Great Britain. They came in contact there with movements like Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism. After 1918 Permeke and artistic colleagues like Gustave De Smet and Frits Van den Berghe worked all those influences into a unique style, which art critics dubbed ‘Flemish Expressionism’. Flemish Expressionism presented reality in geometric planes and simplified forms. Characteristic of their style were the dark, earthy colours and the glorification of the simple life in the Flemish countryside.

James Ensor, De oestereetster, 1882. Dikke verflagen, donkere kleuren en realistische onderwerpen kenmerken het vroege oeuvre van James Ensor.
Antwerp, KMSKA Royal Museum of Fine Arts,, photographer Rik Klein Gotink

James Ensor, The Oyster Eater, 1882. Thick layers of paint, dark colours and realistic subjects typify the early work of James Ensor.

Ensor, de dronkaards.
Brussels, Belfius Art Collection

James Ensor, The Drunkards, 1883.

Minne, Fontein der geknielden.
Ghent, MSK Museum of Fine Arts

George Minne, The Fountain of Kneeling Figures, 1898. The Symbolist George Minne (1866-1941) enjoyed international recognition. In order to express his feelings of angst and despair the sculptor opted for powerful simplifications and daring distortions.

Frits Van den Berghe, Portret van Constant Permeke, 1922-1924.
Ostend, Mu.ZEE,, photographer Steven Decroos

Frits Van den Berghe, Portrait of Constant Permeke, 1922-1924. Many Flemish Expressionists were admirers of art from the colonised world – often Africa. That can be seen in their work, for example, in this portrait of Constant Permeke by Frits Van den Berghe (1883-1939).

Permeke aan het werk.
Jabbeke, Permeke Museum

Constant Permeke at work.

James Ensor, harmonium.
Ostend, Mu.ZEE,, unidentified photographer

James Ensor seated at his harmonium in his studio (with Christ’s Entry in the background). Besides a painter, draughtsman and etcher James Ensor was a creditable musician and composer.

Discover more on this topic

Ensor Jauoad
Een nacht in het museum: Jaouad Alloul

Bron: VRT archief, KMSKA, Fondation Henri Storck – 4 okt 2022

Ensor Kama
Een nacht in het museum: Jaouad Alloul

Bron: VRT archief, KMKSA – 4 okt 2022

Gust De Smet

Bron: VRT archief, Museum van Deinze en de Leiestreek – 17 jul 2003

Museum Elsene

Bron: VRT archief, Museum van Elsene – 14 aug 2003

Vlaanderen Vakantieland

Bron: VRT archief, Permekemuseum – 9 nov 2002


Over Permeke. Met de klankkleur van een basviool

Oostende, Venetiaanse Gaanderijen, 2020. 

Berman Patricia
De intrede van Christus in Brussel in 1889

Ludion, 2010. 

Block Jane, e.a.
Les Vingt en de avant-garde in België: prenten, tekeningen en boeken ca. 1890

Pandora, 1992. 

Boyens Piet
De nieuwe morgen: impressionisme, symbolisme en expressionisme in Vlaanderen

Lannoo, 2018. 

Canning Susan
Hareng Saur: Ensor en de hedendaagse kunst

Ludion, 2010. 

De Geest Joost, Janssen Bart & Palmer, Michael
Van Rik Wouters tot René Magritte: fauvisme, expressionisme, abstractie en surrealisme

Lannoo, 2007. 

De Rynck Patrick
Dit is België, in tachtig meesterwerken

Athenaeum-Polak en Van Gennep, 2010. 

De Smet Johan
Emile Claus & het landleven

Museum voor Schone Kunsten Gent/Mercatorfonds, 2009. 

Hoozee Robert
Moderne kunst in België

Mercatorfonds, 1992. 

Hoozee Robert
Vlaams expressionisme in Europese context. 1900-1930

Snoeck-Ducaju, 1990.

Hoozee Robert & Stevens MaryAnne
Van realisme tot symbolisme: De Belgische avant-garde 1880-1900

Ludion, 1994. 

Liebaers Herman
Vlaamse kunst van de oorsprong tot heden

Mercatorfonds, 1991. 

Min Eric
James Ensor. Een biografie

Meulenhoff/Manteau, 2008. 

Palmer Michael
Van Ensor tot Magritte: Belgische kunst 1880-1940

Lannoo, 2002. 

Sillevis John
De schilderkunst der Lage Landen. De negentiende en de twintigste eeuw

Amsterdam University Press, 2007. 

Todts Herwig, e.a.
Het volk ten voeten uit. Naturalisme in België en Europa

Ludion, 1996. 

Todts Herwig
Ensor ontmaskerd

Mercatorfonds, 2010. 

Van Cauteren Katharina (red.)
Oer: de wortels van Vlaanderen

Lannoo, 2017. 

Van Den Bussche Willy
Constant Permeke

Mercatorfonds, 2012. 

Vandervelden Jos
Op reis met Vlaamse meesters: vijftig ‘schilderachtige’ plekken vroeger en nu

Davidsfonds Uitgeverij, 2019. 


De Duve Catherine
Het geheim van Fernand Khnopff

Kate’art Editions, 2004. 

Tolman Marije
Ensor: de grote maskerade

Leopold, 2015. (3+) 

Elpers Noëlla & Dhondt Steven
James Hond en de Zwarte Vorst

Van Halewyck, 2019. (9+) 

Van De Woestijne Karel (met illustraties van Constant Permeke)
De boer die sterft

Davidsfonds, 2004. 

Nu kijken

Ontdek James Ensor in de verzameling van Mu.ZEE
James Ensor in vogelvlucht, een playlist van het KMSKA
Luister naar La Gamme d’amour gecomponeerd door James Ensor
De Amerikaanse rockgroep They Might Be Giants nam in 1994 het nummer Meet James Ensor op
Een beschouwing door Bob Dylan (10 december 2008) over het leven en werk van James Ensor

(vanaf 22:00) 

De intrede van Christus in Brussel van James Ensor inspireerde Bob Dylan voor zijn nummer Desolation Row

Bijkomend luister materiaal