When James Ensor painted his Oyster Eater in 1882, he created a milestone in Belgian art. No one would argue with that today, but was the canvas equally popular when it first appeared? Who is it exactly tucking into those oysters? And what makes the painting so special?
1. Drawing room as studio
James Ensor was a painter who often focused on one subject and one way of painting for an extended period, before moving on entirely. He was still a very young artist in 1880 when he started work on what his close friend Eugène Demolder called ‘une série de femmes coquettes’. Nowadays we refer to these works as his ‘bourgeois drawing rooms’.
Ensor captured different corners of the interior in his sketchbook or on his easel, dissecting and rearranging them. Our impression of the room recalls an interior design magazine. What was traditionally a hyper-female space became Ensor’s temporary studio, in which his sister Mitche, his mother Maria Cathérine and his aunt Mimi perform everyday rituals. Representing these actions on such a large scale heightens their significance, while the dark colours create an intimate mood. We get a fly-on-the-wall view of the everyday life of the women in the family. Yet there is a marked contrast with reality: although the drawing-room scenes suggest that the ladies live a placid life, they were in fact extremely active as ‘modern’ women in the family business.
And then along came The Oyster Eater in 1882 – bright, colourful and less staged. Ensor brought his easel closer to his subject and rather than the muted colours, it is now the action itself that creates the sense of intimacy. A young woman peaceably enjoys her meal, oblivious to the ‘lens’ zooming in on her. It was the first major turning point in Ensor’s career and one that brought him a step closer to the colours of his more mature years.
2. Portrait of Ensor’s sister
The Oyster Eater is Mariëtte Caroline Emma, or Mitche, as Ensor knew his sister. She was born on 28 August 1861, making her a year younger than the artist. Like her brother, Mitche Ensor liked to push at the boundaries and she enjoyed a tempestuous love life in her twenties. In 1892 she married Alfred John Taen-Hee-Tsen, an importer of Chinese and Japanese goods, some of which were sold in the Ensor family shop. The couple separated in 1893, however, following the birth of their daughter Mariette Alexandrine Jeanne. Little Alex was a ray of sunshine in the family home and also won her Uncle James’ heart.
Her life might have been turbulent, but this didn’t mean Mitche couldn’t sit still: she posed regularly for her brother. We spot her, for instance, in Ensor’s Lady with a Red Parasol. She was fond of the arts, not to mention the progressive artists like Willy Finch who came to the house to visit their friend James. Do we get to see a bit more of the ‘real Mitche’ in her oyster-eating alter ego?
3. Not a portrait but a still life
The Oyster Eater is much more than simply a portrait of his sister, it is a form of self-expression. Artists in the 19th century began to ask themselves what a painting ought to be. They gradually distanced themselves from the idea that art had a duty to hold up a mirror to the public. It wasn’t their job, they argued, to dictate what was good, right or beautiful: the viewer should be allowed simply to enjoy their talent. They threw out all sorts of rules on perspective and lighting and began to experiment and to develop styles of their own, through which they could develop freely.
For someone like Ensor who refused to be bound by rules, this suited him down to the ground. He was a conductor, spreading out his paint thickly and thinly with palette knife and brush, to create accents through his impastoed touches. His oyster eater is seated in the middle of a vibrant composition of colours that intensify or contrast with one another. Variation is the watchword here, in both execution and chromatic tones. Although the work as a whole evokes a sense of calm, Ensor broke new ground with The Oyster Eater for both himself and Belgian art. What he created was more a gigantic still life, in fact, than a portrait.
4. In the Land of Colours
James Ensor’s initial title for The Oyster Eater was the rather abstract In the Land of Colours. Colour does indeed play the leading role in his composition. All the same, the artist did not abandon his classical training entirely: he continued to work with preparatory layers, for instance, where the Impressionists had begun to paint directly onto the white canvas. The pigments he used were fairly traditional as well: vermilion, lead white, ochre, cobalt blue, Prussian blue and synthetic ultramarine. The chrome yellow in The Oyster Eater is the exception – far more intense than the pale Naples yellow he had used previously. So what makes this work so different to his earlier bourgeois interiors? Firstly, the colours are lighter in tone. In many cases, Ensor used them pure, rather than mixing them. And he also laid them down in large expanses or applied them in a sketchy manner.
Ensor might not have painted directly onto the support, but he did create a white canvas of his own: the tablecloth fills the painting, together with the napkins and Mitche’s shawl. It is this expanse of white that ultimately lends the colours their brightness and power. The effect is heightened by the intriguing pattern of reflections.
Ensor opted firmly for yellows and reds so that we almost feel the warm, abundant sunlight flooding into the room. No wonder Mitche looks so content.
For all the speculation about oysters as an aphrodisiac, the artist did not intend to create a scene with any erotic overtones. In 1882, oysters were cultivated on a large scale in Ostend for export and were simply easy to come by. Ensor later said he wished he’d painted Mitche tucking into mussels instead.
5. Not an instant hit
After seeing The Oyster Eater, Emile Verhaeren declared that Ensor was ‘the first of all our artists to paint in a truly bright way’. The Flemish author was deeply impressed and was keen to hold Ensor up as the great innovator of Belgian art. But not everyone saw it that way. The critics didn’t hold back: the colours were too strident and the work was sloppily painted. What’s more, it was unseemly to paint such a second-rate subject on such an immense scale – 2 x 1.3 m. And the loosely applied perspective made it seem like everything could come tumbling out of the painting at any moment.
The Antwerp Salon, at which the leading art of the day was exhibited, rejected the work in 1882, and even Ensor’s old comrades at L’Essor in Brussels refused to show The Oyster Eater the following year. Only in 1886 was Ensor able to present his milestone in public for the first time at the Brussels avant-garde art society Les Vingt. But even then, he had to keep fighting his painting’s corner. As late as 1907, Liège City Council decided not to acquire the work for the local Musée des Beaux Arts.
Fortunately, Ensor’s good friend Emma Lambotte stepped in. She bought the painting and hung it in her own drawing room, completing the circle. For a while, anyway: about 20 years later the KMSKA was given the opportunity to buy the work and the museum wasted no time in saying yes.
6. Freshly restored
Over the years, The Oyster Eater’s famous colours gradually deteriorated and paint began to lift and crack. The biggest problem, however, was the painting’s thick layer of varnish. Until recently, that is, when conservator Lene Smedts successfully removed it.
This was certainly necessary, as the varnish layer was thick, yellowed, irregular and glossy. The resulting yellow sheen virtually cancelled out the nuances in the white zones and the fresh look of the overall work that Ensor had intended. All the subtlety of his colours had also been lost, while the glossy coating created unsightly reflections. The vibrant surface structure that is such a part of this painting could no longer be seen either.
Thanks to the conservator’s skills, we will soon be able to admire Ensor’s work once more, just as he meant it to look.