This canvas from 1885 was a turning point in Ensor's oeuvre. To begin with, it is the work in which he introduced the motif of the skeleton, and secondly, it is where he abandoned the Impressionistic rendition of reality he had practised until then. Here, his work takes its 'fantastic' turn. Through the frame (!) of a door opening, we are offered a view of a room in which a figure sits looking at an album of Japanese prints (and not Chinese, as suggested by the title). In the middle of the wall hangs an oblong Japanese painting. The whole forms a well-balanced composition and has a few colourful accents: yellow, blue, red... Ensor may have painted it in the studio of his colleague painter Théo van Rysselberghe.
X-rays show that Ensor originally painted a realistic head of a bearded elderly man and later changed it to a skull. The second skull at the bottom left is also a later addition. It is small interventions like these that radically change the content of the painting and render it 'fantastic': as spectators, we are now looking at a dead man. The theme of death, and of his own death, is one that occupied Ensor a lot in these years. Was he expressing an autobiographical death wish, is this a macabre fantasy, or is it irony? Or are we supposed to interpret the skull as simply a picturesque attribute that has been around since classical Antiquity?
SizeH: 101 cm
MediumOil on canvas
Year1885 and 1888