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Ensor in His Milieu

OSTEND, THE TOWN OF ENSOR’S birth, is a coastal resort 77 miles west of Brussels that is popular for its large expanse of sandy beach. It is famous in history as the site of a devastating three-year siege inflicted by the Spanish at the beginning of the 17th century. Belgian casualties numbered over 130,000 and remains were still being uncovered well into the 20th century. Human skeletons found on the beaches and in the town itself became as familiar as the driftwood and shells which lie partially buried in sand.

Two photographs reproduced in James Haesaerts’ 1959 book on Ensor show the artist and his young friend Ernest Rousseau staging a mock fight on these very dunes, using human arm and hand bones as weapons. Such familiarity might account not only for the skeleton as a recurrent and serious motif in Ensor’s art, but also for the humor with which Ensor occasionally invests the skeleton

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