James Ensor (1860-1949), the Baptême de Masques, about 1925-30, oil on canvas, 60 X 70 cm, estimate between 300,000 and 500,000 euro, lot 404 of Vienna’s Dorotheum auction of May 31st – www.dorotheum.com
This painting was recently discovered at the home of a collector related to the family of Simone Breton, a gallery owner who back in the day used to exhibit many surrealists and was the first to buy the work. After being previewed in Brussels in early May, it will be auctioned in Vienna on the opening day of the intense sales session running from 31 May to 3 June next. Its theme is one of the favourite subjects of the Ostend-born artist who grew up in a world filled with an “inextricable jumble of miscellaneous objects”. His family owned a souvenir and curiosity shop populated by shells, sumptuous lace, stuffed rare fish, old books, engravings, and vintage weapons. Masks and skeletons were not much of a leap. Ensor included them in his paintings from 1883. From 1887, the year when both his father and grandmother died, these motifs took an ever more prominent role in his work. The artist even added them to previous paintings. Such imagery conjured up not only the curious atmosphere of his family’s shop and the carnival tradition of Ostend, but it was also symbolic. They transcended reality by accentuating and hiding it. While masks hid and highlighted a reality whose ugliness and cruelty the painter found unbearable, skeletons revealed the world’s vanity and absurdity. When Ensor created this amazing masquerade, he was inspired by a family photograph kept at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. The protagonists include members of the Nahrath family, Ernest Rousseau Jr., and James Ensor dressed in a hussar’s husby. The other two characters remain unidentified to date. This painting epitomizes Ensor’s signature style: a mother-of-pearl colour palette intensified by light, a thirst for modernity, the painter’s self-portrait as a mere marionette in a masquerade, and the use of masks to obscure reality. Masks which kept haunting the artist’s inner world, since he produced a second version as early as 1891 with the title Réunion de masques (Mascarades). Two later versions of Baptême des Masques, 1891 exist, one of which is listed and dated “1937”. The fate of the painting auctioned by the Dorotheum will be known at the very end of May.