Squelette regardant chinoiseries marked the beginning of a sombre period for Ensor, induced by rejection among his fellow painters and the critics, but also by his inner demons, family quarrels and the deaths, in quick succession, of his father and maternal grandmother. This painting is one of his key works: firstly because it is one of a series of bourgeois interiors, intimate and overcrowded, which are characteristic of his early work and secondly because it was in this painting that Ensor introduced the skeleton that would become a recurrent feature in his work.
Infra-red photography and X-rays have revealed that, under the skeleton’s head, there was originally the realistic face of an old man. In the lower left corner, Ensor added another skull that looks towards the spectator. Amidst the abundance of details and the opulence of the bedroom colours, the onlooker may not immediately notice the head of death of the central character. The effect created is even greater: we find ourselves confronted by a figure whose place has been imperceptibly taken by death. The over-painting probably dates from the end of the 1880s. This macabre element, suddenly introduced into the comfort of a cosy interior provides the power of this painting, structured by the vertical lines of the wallpaper with ‘chinoiserie’ motifs.
The meaning of these heads of death has not been established. This vanitas portrait undoubtedly demonstrates James Ensor’s lively imagination. The presence of the skull serves neither to worry the onlooker, nor to mock the subject. The intimate atmosphere and magical beauty of the oriental colours are not disturbed: they seem at best to be subtly menaced, rendering the intimacy and beauty even more vulnerable.
Squelette regardant chinoiseries has been entrusted to the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Ghent, which houses other key works by James Ensor and has already held numerous important exhibitions of work by Ensor and others of his period. This painting represents an essential link in Ensor’s work for the museum and fills a hitherto important void in Belgium’s Ensor collections.