James Ensor (1860-1949)
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James Ensor (1860-1949)

Les bons juges

James Ensor (1860-1949)
Les bons juges
signed and dated 'Ensor 91' (lower right)
oil on panel
15 x 18 1/8 in. (38 x 46 cm.)
Painted in 1891
C. Laurent, Charleroi.
Anonymous sale, Galerie Giroux, 8 December 1924, lot 47.
M. Thunissen, Brussels.
J. de Graef, Brussels.
Anonymous sale, Palais des Beaux-Arts, 27 April 1950, lot 42.
Acquired at the above sale by the previous owner and thence by descent.
E. Verhaeren, James Ensor, Brussels, 1908, p. 116.
G. Le Roy, James Ensor, Brussels, 1922, p. 183.
P. Haesaerts, James Ensor, Brussels, 1957, no. 276 (illustrated p. 196).
F.C. Legrand, Ensor cet inconnu, Brussels, 1971, no. 133, p. 75 (illustrated).
A. Taevernier, Le drame ensorien, Les auréoles du Christ ou les sensiblitités de la lumière, Ledeberg, 1976, no. 88 (the 1894 engraving illustrated).
R. Delevoy, Ensor, Antwerp, 1981, no. 255, pp. 322-323 (illustrated).
X. Tricot, James Ensor, Catalogue raisonné of the paintings, vol. I, 1875-1902, Brussels, 1992, no. 332 (illustrated p. 320; in colour p. 360).
Brussels, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Les XX, IXe Exposition annuelle, February - March 1892, no. 10.
Antwerp, Kunst van Heden - L'Art Contemporain, May 1921, no. 83.
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Retrospective James Ensor, June - August 1951, no. 94.
Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, James Ensor, February - April 1954, no. 59.
Ostend, Stedelijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, James Ensor, July - August 1960, no. 62.
Otterlo, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Ensor 1860-1949, June - July 1961, no. 47; this exhibition later travelled to Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, August - September 1961.
Basel, Kunsthalle, James Ensor, June - August 1963, no. 63; this exhibition later travelled to Münster, Westfälisches Landesmuseum, James Ensor, August - September 1963.
Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, James Ensor, November 1976 - January 1977, no. 33; this exhibition later travelled to New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, January - April 1977.
Knokke, Christian Fayt Art Gallery, James Ensor, September - October 1978, no. 5.
Berlin, Orangerie des Schlosses Charlottenburg, Zeichen des Glaubens - Geist der Avantgarde, May - July 1980.
Zurich, Kunsthaus, James Ensor, May - July 1983, no. 79.
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, James Ensor, August - October 1983, no. 86.
Hyogo, The Museum of Modern Art, James Ensor, December 1983 -
January 1984, no. 49 (illustrated p. 70); Kamakura, The Museum of Modern Art, James Ensor, January - February 1984; Miyagi, The Museum of Modern Art, James Ensor, February - April 1984; Saitama, April - May 1984.
Paris, Musée du Petit Palais, James Ensor, April - July 1990, no. 172.
Antwerp, Galerie Ronny van de Velde, James Ensor, September - December 1992, no. 16 (illustrated).
Madrid, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya, James Ensor, March - May 1996, no. 29.
Ostend, Museum voor Moderne Kunst, From Ensor to Delvaux, Ensor, Spilliaert, Permeke, Magritte, October 1996 - February 1997 (illustrated p. 126).
London, Barbican Art Gallery, James Ensor 1860-1949, Theatre of Masks, September - December 1997, p. 131, no. 34 (illustrated in colour pl. 124).
Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Rétrospective James Ensor, September 1999 - February 2000, no. 107 (illustrated p. 170).
Special notice
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Lot Essay

The Good Judges is one of a highly important and rare group of bitingly satirical oil paintings that Ensor painted between 1890 and 1896. Depicting a motley assembly of self-satisfied, sinister-looking and corrupted judiciary passing judgement on the defendants of a gruesome murder trial, Ensor confronts the viewer with a powerful indictment of the pomposity and ineptitude of the Belgian legal establishment.

One of the artist's own favourite paintings, (judging by the fact that The Good Judges was hung by Ensor amongst a select few of his favourite works in his "favourite room" - see Ma Chambre préférée of 1892), (FIG) the painting directly engages the viewer by forcing them into the position of a defendant facing the panel of their accusers. Deliberately emulating and at the same time undermining the reverence and grandeur of the large group portraits of guilds and societies so popular in 17th Century Holland (FIG), Ensor takes evident delight in this work in ridiculing the supposed wisdom and authority of the Belgian judiciary.

Ensor's cynical disregard towards authority and the powers of the establishment in his native Belgium is well documented and indeed nowhere more apparent than in his 1889 etching Doctrinal Nourishment (FIG) that depicts Belgian society feasting on the excrement provided by a series of perching figures symbolising such institutions as the monarchy and the church. Ensor's strong sense of wit, caricature and satire echoes the work of English artists such as Hogarth, Cruikshank and Rowlandson whom Ensor was proud to consider his forbears. "I am English by birth and have family in England," Ensor wrote to the art critic Pol de Mont, "In addition, my art bears an undeniable resemblance to English art - the real stuff...Turner, Constable, Crome, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Rowlandson etc. Do you not agree that my vision, my style and my painterly qualities give me something in common with these artists, in landscape painting as well as in satire?" (letter from Ensor to de Mont dated 4 October 1900)

In The Good Judges Ensor's searing wit and cynicism is levelled at the contemporary judicial establishment. From the top of the picture on down, each element of the work points to the miscarriage of justice. Above the judges heads hangs a painting of the crucified Christ - an appropriate symbol here highlighting the world's most celebrated judicial travesty when the Son of God was falsely accused and sentenced to death. Next to this on the right of the picture where the lawyer for the defence is shown sweating and fulminating before an evidently oblivious audience of judges, the wooden lectern is adorned with cobwebs and inscribed with a clearly unbalanced judicial scale. At the lower right of the picture, one of the former prisoners no doubt, has scrawled into the woodwork of the lectern the revolutionary cry "Mort aux Vaches!" - a timeless phrase which translates roughly as "Death to the Oppressors". Before the judges themselves, lying on the table are the artefacts and body parts of a gruesome murder. Undoubtedly satirizing the lamentable procedures then commonplace in the Belgian law courts, it is clear from this painting that the defendants chances of receiving a fair trial from these judges is extremely slim.

It is widely thought that The Good Judges is a satirical portrait based on one or more well-publicised legal scandals that took place in Belgium the1860s. In particular the "affaire Lambin" and the infamous case of Jan Coucke and Pieter Goethals. Coucke and Goethals were two Flemish labourers who were arrested following the murder of an old woman in French-speaking Wallonia and subsequently accused of colluding with a gang of criminals who were known to have been terrorising her. Coucke and Goethals were then tried for the woman's murder and condemned to death by the court. They were both beheaded in Charleroi on 16 November 1860. A few months after their execution the real culprits were arrested. The injustice done to the two men was compounded in this case by the fact that their trial was conducted entirely in French, a language which neither man could understand. Apart from the fact that none of the "Good Judges" seems to be listening to the defending lawyer in this painting, the futility of his words seems also to be indicated by the small black marks pouring out of his mouth and falling to the floor. For the judges, it is as if the lawyer is speaking a foreign and perhaps also inaudible, language.

The glaring injustice of the Coucke and Goethals trial led to much public outcry amongst the Flemish speakers of the country and to the later establishment of one of Belgium's first language laws. It is also thought that Ensor's later painting The Red Judge (FIG) which shows an ageing judge being harangued by two condemned men who have become skeletons is another painterly reference to this much publicised case.
The troubled figure of the defence lawyer in The Good Judges bears a close resemblance to Ensor himself. It has also been suggested that this figure may also represent Ensor's friend and fellow member of the Les XX group Edmond Picard who was himself a much celebrated lawyer and champion of social justice. That Ensor should identify himself and/or Picard with the figure of a defence lawyer raging against an unlistening audience of self-satisfied establishment figures is neither strange nor unusual; Ensor often included himself in his paintings and in particular in his satirical tirades against his critics, most notably in such paintings as Ecce Homo 1891 and Ensor and General Leman discussing Painting 1890. (FIG)

Picard himself is known to have been particularly impressed with this attack on the less salubrious members of his profession when he first saw it at an exhibition of Ensor's work at Les XX in 1892. In a letter to Octave Maus that Ensor wrote after the exhibition he described how Picard had reacted to The Good Judges, writing, " When M. Picard saw the picture, he found it very good and in all sincerity told me enthusiastically that he had found it to be the best in the whole exhibition and indeed, he said the same thing to many other people." (cited in James Ensor exh. cat. Musée du Petit Palais, Paris 1990, p. 207). As a result of this letter it has been conjectured that it may indeed have been Picard who was instrumental in persuading his fellow lawyer and art collector Camille Laurent to buy the work.


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