James Ensor (Belgian, 18601949)
Oil on canvas; 45 1/2 x 57 1/4 in. (115.6 x 145.4 cm)
Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (18761967), 1967 (67.187.68)
© 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels
The Belgian artist James Ensor saw himself as the modern interpreter of the type of nightmare fantasies painted by the fifteenth-century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. Ensor spent his entire life in Ostend, Belgium, a famous nineteenth-century seaside resort whose carnival atmosphere turned dark and sinister in his paintings. Ensor's natural predilection for the macabre had a firm basis in reality when he painted The Banquet of the Starved in 1915. Late in 1914, German troops had invaded Belgium. While most of Ensor's friends fled to England, he remained in Ostend for the duration of the war. Under Occupation, Belgium suffered terrible food shortages, and this, together with Ensor's disdain for the invaders, probably prompted this painting. Seated around a table like a traditional Last Supper are a host of grotesque and masked figures engaged in disturbing acts of murder, seduction, flattery, and illness. The meager meal laid out on the table is decidedly unappetizing, and the skeleton pictures on the wall increase the unsettling effect of the whole picture. Long before Expressionism became a recognized style of painting, Ensor ravaged his canvas with brutal brushwork.