JAMES ENSOR (1860-1949)
Petit théâtre
signed 'Ensor' (lower right)
oil on canvas
15 1/8 x 18 1/4 in. (38.5 x 46.4 cm.)
Painted circa 1916
(probably) Augusta Boogaerts, Brussels (by 1922).
Antonio Santamarina, Buenos Aires (by 1943); sale, Sotheby & Co., London, 2 April 1974, lot 34.
Kunsthaus Bühler, Stuttgart (acquired at the above sale).
Private collection, Germany; sale, Christie's, London, 27 June 1995, lot 298.
Acquired by Ann and Gordon Getty at the above sale.
G. Le Roy, James Ensor, Brussels, 1922, p. 195 (titled Petites danseuses).
J.E. Payró, James Ensor, Buenos Aires, 1943, p. 70, no. 43 (illustrated, pl. 43; titled Máscaras y danzarinas).
X. Tricot, James Ensor: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Antwerp, 1992, vol. II, p. 474, no. 475 (illustrated).
(probably) Antwerp, Kunst van Heden, April-May 1922, p. 91, no. 448 (titled Petit théâtre moderne).
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, James Ensor, January-February 1929, p. 11, no. 284 (titled Danseuses).
(probably) Ostend, Kursaal, Oeuvres de James Ensor, August 1931, no. 61.

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Lot Essay

Ensor’s oeuvre lies at the intersection between social realism and satire. Describing this phenomenon in the seminal painting Christs Entry into Brussels in 1889 in the J. Paul Getty museum’s collection, Susan M. Canning writes: “Modern life coexists with carnival travesty… Allusions to theater and the sideshow abound, from the proscenium arch that frames this panorama to the burlesque of costumed and grotesquely masked figures—some caricatures of social types—that enter from the wings, competing for attention and space” (S.M. Canning, James Ensor: Carnival of the Modern, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2009, p. 28).
In the present work, life and theater similarly come together to recreate modern society’s cacophonous atmosphere. Cluttered movement unites foreground with background, scene with pit, performers with public, and innocence with mischief. The angelic ballerina, perhaps a stand-in for the painter himself, guides the viewer’s eye downwards to the masses. She dominates the composition and the stage only to plunge our attention towards Ensor’s preferred spectacle: bourgeois mundanity. With each character’s nature as an actor or member of the audience left ambiguous, the group embodies the masquerade which social gatherings implicate. Absorbed in conversation, spectators turn away from the stage and leave the performers to their own devices. Unattended to, the second dancer sits down on the podium’s right edge and watches her own audience.
In 1916, around the time this painting was executed, Ensor produced his own theater piece, a flirt for marionettes titled La Gamme damour. Works from this period reflect his interest in stage-decor, with dramatic, boxy, well-lit compositions which mimic theaters themselves. This pictorial language, with its use of props and costumes, allows the canvas to become “an arena for subjective conjuring and performance” (ibid., p. 36) with Ensor as his figures’ puppet master. The peintre des masques, as he sometimes referred to himself, notoriously exploited the mask’s duplicitous symbolism. This accessory enabled him to portray his characters’ inner rather than outer selves. His aesthetic inspirations for disguise encompassed various artistic traditions. They included the Italian comedia dellarte, Flemish notions of the Grotesque developed by Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, as well as personal childhood memories. Indeed, the painter often stated how strong of an impression his native town of Ostend’s annual Mardi Gras parade left on him. In Petit Théâtre, a long-nosed masked figure escapes slyly towards the theater’s right wings, accompanied by a Pierrot-like companion. As Herwig Todts states: “the integration of a carnivalesque iconography is Ensor’s most notable contribution to modern art” (James Ensor, Occasional Modernist, Brepols, 2018, p. 372). This uniquely ensorian contribution to art is skillfully displayed in the present "little theater."

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