James Ensor. Masks Confronting Death. 1888

James Ensor

Masks Confronting Death


Oil on canvas
32 x 39 1/2" (81.3 x 100.3 cm)
Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund
Object number
© 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels
Painting and Sculpture
This work is not on view.
James Ensor has 51 works online.
There are 2,242 paintings online.

A group of masked figures confronts the figure of Death, centrally situated and draped in whitea color that infiltrates the entire picture. Composed of masks adorned with drapery, hats, and even blue glasses, the arrangement of figures recalls Ensor's earlier still-life compositions. The ubiquitous masks in Ensor's work were likely based on those sold in his family's curiosity shop a few floors below his studio. He explained, "The mask means to me: freshness of color, sumptuous decoration, wild unexpected gestures, very shrill expressions, exquisite turbulence." In this painting, the fantastical masked inventions appear to come alive and challenge Death—perhaps a reflection of the artist's preoccupation with mortality and his hope that he might prevail against its inevitable dominion.

Gallery label from James Ensor, June 28–September 21, 2009

Provenance Research Project
This work is included in the Provenance Research Project, which investigates the ownership history of works in MoMA's collection.
Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Rousseau, Brussels. [Likely purchased from the artist by Mariette Rousseau, 1890] By 1905 – 1921
Mrs. G. Born, Anvers/Antwerp. By 1922 – at least until 1947
Gustave van Geluwe (1881-1962), Brussels. By 1949 – 1951
Galerie Georges Giroux, Brussels. Agent for van Geluwe, 1951
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchased from Galerie Georges Giroux, 1951

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