Photo d'un dessin de James Ensor réalisé à l'Académie des Beaux-Arts représentant le Torse de Laocoon

KBR and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium have acquired two of James Ensor’s unpublished drawings

The two works are to be presented at the “James Ensor. Inspired by Brussels” exhibition, opening on 22 February 2024 as part of the Ensor Year. This exhibition is the result of a collaboration between two federal scientific establishments, KBR and the RMFAB.

A competition drawing for KBR

KBR’s new acquisition is a large sheet depicting the torso of Laocoön, part of the famous Greek sculpture that has been on display in the Vatican since 1506. Those who are mainly familiar with James Ensor’s masked scenes wouldn’t immediately recognise the master’s hand in this work. It should be noted that the young man, who would go on to become one of the most significant avant-garde artists of his time, was just 18 when he drew the subject. With this drawing, Ensor finished third in his “Drawing from antique torso and fragments” class. This study is based on a plaster cast of Laocoön’s upper body. Ensor emphasises the suffering and struggling attitude of this Trojan priest, as shown in the original sculpture.

“The drawing stands out from the other academy drawings by Ensor because of its exceptional rarity as a competition drawing.”

Daan van Heesch, Conservator of Prints and Drawings at KBR.
James Ensor, Torso of Laocoon, 1878. Charcoal and pencil on paper, 820 × 580 mm. KBR, inv. F-2023-3.

Napoleon inspired by Antoine Wiertz for the Royal Museums

The work acquired by the Royal Museums is a chalk drawing, around twenty centimetres tall. Entitled Napoleon after the main subject, it was probably created between 1910 and 1920 and is inspired by A Scene from Hell, a painting by Antoine Wiertz from 1864, still on display today at the Wiertz Museum. This fascinating artistic link can be explained by Ensor’s great admiration for Antoine Wiertz’s work; he could see this panel at the Wiertz Museum during his years of study in Brussels (1877-1880).

“The link between James Ensor and Antoine Wiertz, their common taste for eccentricity, humour and colouration, but also their attraction to the macabre as well as the figure of Napoleon Bonaparte, give this acquisition a very unique character.”

– Sarah Van Ooteghem and Davy Depelchin, curator of Works on Paper Modern Art and curator of 19th-Century Painting, respectively, at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.

Ensor, Napoleon, ca. 1910-1920
 Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgiums, Brussel, inv. 12678.

The rich collections of the RMFAB and KBR

Together, the two institutions hold over 200 of Ensor’s works and they’re the oldest public collections of the mask painter. KBR was the first public institution to acquire any of Ensor’s works. In 1892, KBR bought 25 of the artist’s etchings. Three years later, the RMFAB followed suit, buying the panel “The Lamplighter”, one of Ensor’s early masterpieces dating from 1880. Over time, both institutions have enriched their collections of Ensor’s works, with pieces that will be on display in the exhibition. The selection for the exhibition will also include several loans from private Belgian collections.
The Prints Department at KBR and the Royal Museums are continuing their efforts to enrich the federal collection with Ensor’s major works and strive to present the most complete image of his works.

Ensor and Brussels in pictures

The two drawings will be part of the “James Ensor. Inspired by Brussels” exhibition, opening its doors on 22 February 2024. Although Ensor is inextricably linked to Ostend, it was in Brussels that he revealed himself as an artist and became a central figure of Belgian avant-garde. It’s not by chance that the exhibition is taking place in the magnificent halls of the Palace of Charles of Lorraine, which is now part of KBR, knowing that during James Ensor’s lifetime, the palace housed the museum of modern art, where the artist himself exhibited some of his most controversial works of art.

“The collaboration between KBR and the RMFAB is not only the result of a common history, but also testament to the explicit and shared desire to make the heritage they’re protecting and studying accessible to the largest and most diverse audience possible. With the exhibition, we want to honour James Ensor, an internationally renowned Belgian artist, and the city of Brussels which played a decisive role in the artist’s journey.”

–  Sara Lammens, General Director of KBR and Director a.i. of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.