Researching the paintings of James Ensor in the collection

In the studio for the conservation of paintings of the Kröller-Müller Museum six paintings by James Ensor have been examined.

- Still life with blue jug, 1890 (KM 109.011);
- The revenge of Hop-Frog, ca. 1896 (KM 105.847;
- Flowers in blue vase, 1909 (KM 103.212);
- Pierrot in despair, ca. 1910 (KM 102.260);
- Still life with cabbage, 1921 (KM 105.303);
- The fight, ca. 1925 (KM 106.787).

Rik Wouters, Torso of James Ensor, 1913

Ensor (1860-1949) is seen as one of the most important innovators of modern art in Belgium. He spent most of his life in the mundane seaside city Oostende. As a young man Ensor attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. Here he learned drawing after classical models and had to paint according to the traditional, academic style. Later on he was a member of the artistic groups L’Essor en Les Vingt. Initiately his work was criticized and repeatedly refused for exhibition. However it was the most creative period of his life. After he became more popular, around the turning of the century, he seemed tired of fighting and he started repeating himself. Next to painting Ensor also made graphic art (drawings and etchings).

His works have a fantasy-like nature, with masqueraded figures and exotic bric-a-brac. Death is also an often returning theme. Ensor can be seen as ‘master of light’. Colours are an essential element in his oeuvre.

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During the research an inventory will be made of the condition of the paintings. Some works of Ensor have problems with the adhesion between the various layers of the painting. This causes paint to flake and lacunae to arise. Additionally some paintings show clearly visible craquelure. The painting technique of this artist will also be studied. How did Ensor build up his paint layers? Did he use im-pasto or did he dilute his paint? Which colours did he use? Did he paint with only brushes or also with palette knifes?

After the research the treatment of two paintings is being considered. The condition of these paintings present the conservator with both ethical dilemmas and practical problems which must be solved. The question is not only if to treat the paintings, but if so, how to approach the treatment.

James Ensor, The fight, around 1925. Oil on canvas 60,5 x 50 cm (r)
The revenge of Hop-Frog
, around 1896. Oil on canvas, 114 x 81,5 cm (l)

The fight, painted around 1925, has a yellowed, glossy and very irregular varnish. It is not clear if the painting was originally varnished by Ensor himself. Another question is the possibility of removing the varnish without damaging the paint layers. Some colours are very solvent sensitive and Ensor has applied some paint layers very diluted. He might also have used crayons.

One of the restored paintings is The Revenge of Hop-Frog (circa 1896), a painting with a long history of lacunae. During the recent treatment of the painting the central question was whether the visually annoying lacunae could be retouched from a moral, aesthetic and practical point of view. If so, how far should the treatment go?
Schilderij James Ensor Kröller-Müller

By means of retouching, i.e., painting in the missing parts of the paint layer, the ‘readability’ of a visual image can be enhanced. This element of the restoration profession is however a source of moral dilemmas. Therefore it is essential that any executed retouches are reversible. If desired, they can be removed in future without causing damage to the original painting.

During the restoration process, however, a decision was made not to retouch the lacunae at all. Due to the extremely brittle paint layer, any retouches would be practically irreversible. Perhaps future restorers will reach a different judgement, but at present this is sufficient reason for us to halt treatment.

From a moral point of view, retouching the lacunae in The Revenge of Hop-Frog is hardly acceptable. The lacunae in this painting are not sufficiently annoying visually to warrant retouching for purposes of readability. The attention of most viewers will be particularly drawn towards the bright pink colour and the ghoulish nature of the depicted scene.

In order that we may, nevertheless, get a good impression of the original scene, a digital reconstruction was made. Using a stereo microscope, a precise chart was drawn up of the missing patches of paint. These lacunae were digitally filled in with the help of Adobe Photoshop and a pen tablet. We are obliged to remark, though, that it is not always possible to ascertain the precise style and location of the original paint strokes. It is still guesswork.

Detail before reconstruction James Ensor

Detail after reconstruction James Ensor










Detail before (left) and after (right) digital reconstruction. The scene has become much calmer now that the paint strokes are unbroken.

In the reconstruction of the most severely damaged part – the green figure on the left side – the scene becomes noticeably calmer. The shape of the paint strokes has been restored and they are once again unbroken. The figure is painted in a strikingly open manner. In the reconstructed version too there are many parts where the surface has been left exposed.

Detail before reconstruction James Ensor Detail after reconstruction James Ensor





Detail before (left) and after (right) digital reconstruction. The visually annoying lacunae in the dark green figure have been retouched. In addition, the missing tips of the blue paint strokes in the dog’s hat have been touched up.

This investigation was carried out as part of a thesis project for the degree programme in painting restoration at SRAL Maastricht.

Project coordination: Mireille Engel - supervisor: Luuk Struick van der Loeff
Duration: Sep 1, 2008 - Jul 1, 2009