James Ensor’s L’Appel de la sirène presents an amusing satire, crowned by the artist’s ironic self-portrait. This picture was exhibited in 1929, on the occasion of a major retrospective at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Mimicking the bathing customs of the time, a shivering man is hesitantly stepping down the stairs of his bathing machine. A generously-formed, big-bellied eager woman is inviting him to throw himself into the waves, to discover the pleasure of bathing. The scene may be Ostend, the Belgian city where Ensor was born and lived all his life and which in the Nineteenth Century had become an active seaside resort. By introducing his own image into the picture, Ensor not only revealed his penchant for self-irony, but also perhaps showed his scornful judgement towards those people who had taken so long to recognise his talent.
L’Appel de la sirène seems to parody the popular photographs which had flourished with tourism at Ostend: in the late Nineteenth Century it had become a fashion to have a photograph taken on the ‘Queen of beaches’ to bring back as a proud souvenir. Ensor himself would have had extensive exposure to this type of photograph, as they were sold in his family’s shop at Ostend (G. Ollinger-Zinque, Ensor par lui-même, Brussels, 1976, p. 125). Indeed it was in 1893 – around the time L’Appel de la sirène may have been executed – that Ensor’s family found itself in trouble for one of those very photographs. Writing to the lawyer Edmond Picard on 8 January 1893, Ensor revealed his distress while discussing the situation: ‘This letter is exceptional and no doubt reflects my disarray and worry. I am caught up in a nasty business. My aunt Mademoiselle Marie Haegheman is being prosecuted by Monsieur Braun of Paris (…) for having put on sale painted photographs glued on panels and seashells representing “Fearful woman” after Van Beers’ (X. Tricot, James Ensor, Ostfildern, 2009, p. 111). The dispute was an early example of copyright quarrel: his aunt had bought the photographs from a salesman who had guaranteed that she had the right to sell them, whereas they in fact belonged to Braun. Luckily Picard was able to settle the dispute, yet Ensor may have been less willing to let the matter go: in its composition, in fact, L’Appel de la sirène appears as a parody of Van Beers’ ‘Fearful woman’.
L’Appel de la sirène – already comic in itself – reveals all its sneering power when compared with Jan van Beers’s picture, which Ensor decided to parody with this work. In Van Beers’s work, an athletic man is offering his help to a scared, prudish woman. By reversing the roles, Ensor created a parody of Van Beers’ somewhat sentimental and risible picture. While Van Beers adopted a photographic style, Ensor has resorted to a seemingly naïve manner, reminiscent of caricature scenes. This reversal of roles might have been the fruit of an afterthought: Ensor’s face seems in fact to have been painted over another, probably female, face (X. Tricot, ibid., p. 344). By including his self-portrait, Ensor made L’Appel de la sirène something beyond mere parody, turning a popular photography cliché into a potentially symbolic image of the artist’s sense of threat and aggression from an audience who would take so long to recognise the value of his work: in classical mythology, mermaids – ‘sirènes’ – were, after all, deadly creatures.