Ensor's late still-life paintings are full of delightful eccentricities, and when so compactly and affectionately rendered in brilliant color as seen here, they are all the more charming for their diminutive scale. The inexorable demons that ran rampant in Ensor's famously sardonic and macabre paintings of the late 1880s and 1890s appear to have been held at bay, and in place of an outrageously neurotic spectacle there is now the moving experience of observing the elderly artist as he finally relaxes in semi-quiescent acceptance of the world, and enjoys its simple, familiar pleasures, however ambivalent and uneasy by nature he might remain. When the pesky devils come out to play, Ensor enjoys a laugh at their shenanigans--a series of grinning masks in profile appear along the right edge, while in the background a couple of men leer at nude women in Nature morte au bibelots.
Ensor was nearly eighty years old when he received a visit from the German painter Anton Sailer, who recorded the following description of their meeting:
"When I arrived in Ostend in the spring of 1939, solely to meet this knight errant and triumphant in the kingdom of the grotesque, I had been told to expect an unsociable eccentric who supposedly never received a visitor. The house seemed abandoned, the shop, long since legendary--its window filled with corals, dried sea-horses, seashells and souvenirs--looked gray and disenchanted. Above it, however, on the first floor, I was welcomed by a very pleasant man. Black suit, lavallière, snow-white, silky, well-trimmed hair and pointed beard. I found myself in a room reminiscent of an elegant second-hand furniture shop. A large round table was strewn with multi-colored ribbons and imposing hats for turn-of-the-century ladies, decorated with feathers and flowers. Long red gloves entwined with green boas, delicate ladies' boots in mauve, pink and black were placed on console tables alongside bizarre knick-knacks, vases with paper flowers and dolls. Little parasols were propped in corners, the floor was covered in piles of books, tubes of paint, and cases and portfolios of drawings. With childish joy the baron showed me his treasures and then opened up two big, tall wardrobes--inside hung costumes and costly faded dresses whose lilac scented folds he caressed with his hand. Later he sat at his harmonium to play his Gamme d'amour and explained with a mysterious air that it was a Flirt de marionettes. He insisted on showing me the seashell chair on which he has to sit when he wants to play or compose. Then we went to his monument, a bust on a slender plinth. He saluted himself, fingering his black hat, and when he winked at me, thousands of sparkling Ensorian goblins sprang from his eyes" (Das private Kunstkabinett, Munich, 1967, pp.181-182; quoted in cat. rais., op. cit., pp. 203-204).
Xavier Tricot has noted that Ensor painted regularly in 1937, and sold most of his output to the art dealer Sam Salz, who was then living in London. Ensor wrote to Salz on 16 March: "I am working a great deal. Since you tell me you are coming to visit, you will find me at home surrounded by a variety of recent works" (quoted in cat. rais., op. cit.., p. 203). A photograph taken of Ensor on 22 June 1937 shows many of these paintings, as well as the sundry objects that appear in them (fig. 1). Nature morte aux bibelots appears atop a ledge at upper left, on the right end of a row of four small canvases.
(fig, 1) James Ensor in his parlor, Ostend, 22 June 1937. The present work is visible on the mantlepiece at the upper left. Photograph by Maurice Antony.