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James Ensor is famous for his artwork spanning a period of 10 years between 1880 and 1890. One of his most famous works is the Masks Confronting Death (1888). The title of this work is rather descriptive, considering that the piece of art presents a number of masks staring at and literally mocking the central figure in the oil on canvas painting that is that of death. From a general perspective, the piece of art is well preserved, except for a few signs of aging. The aging view assists in supporting the idea that I actually analyze the original work of Ensor. With this conviction in mind, analyzing the work is expected to yield an undistorted view of the painting, considering that nothing in my analysis has been distorted since Ensor had first presented the work.

James Ensor’s appearance in books of art majorly includes a few pieces of art that he produced in the period between 1880 and 1890 with the Masks Confronting Death being among them. Looking at this painting, it may be difficult to describe the artist in a few words. For this very reason, Ensor was considered to have the skill of an angel and the vision of a devil. This description of the artist draws the attention of his fans to the fact that his art was like a double-edged sword with a realist expression on one end and the symbolist expression on another, as will be seen in the analysis of the work.


The Masks Confronting Death presents the visionary figure of death in the middle of the frame. The gouged out eyes differentiate this central figure from all other elements in the painting. The white cloak helps to create the contrast between the visionary image of death and other elements in the painting. Death appears to be seated and sad with the bearers of the masks standing near and apparently making fun of the situation. The bearers of masks are all in peasant dressing with drapes and hats further supporting this assertion. The artist presented them in different and conspicuously bright colors, including yellow, blue, and green. These colors assist in creating a great contrast in the piece of art and impact its lighting. On the right-hand side of death or the left-hand side of the frame, there is a mask bearer hiding behind another snout carnival mask. These characters help to create the emotional appeal of the piece of art. On the right-hand side of the frame, there are three masks, one of which is wearing blue glasses. Furthermore, in the background, there is a dark sky, which apparently has all the colors of the masked characters. Most notable is the fact that a white color dominates the entire piece of art, which marks the beginning of the consideration of the emotional orientation of the piece of art and the historical context of the painting.

As mentioned above, the first appealing characteristic of this piece of art is the domination of the white color in the entire work. My personal perspective is that it is by no coincidence that death is clothed in white and all other characters in the painting have a white color. The fact that the masks and their bearers had an element of white means that death dominates or wins in the end, which explains why one of the masks appears to be hiding. Therefore, proto-expressionism in this image is used to show the painter’s preoccupation with mortality. From a realist perspective, the painting shows the world’s fear of death and the helplessness of man in the face of death. The peasant clothing on the masked characters and the domination of white support this helplessness.

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The second appealing characteristic is the artistic use of color in the Masks Confronting Death. The painter used bright colors in the image. James Ensor was particularly talented in his manipulation of colors, and the use of multiple hues in this image presents his association with colors. Other than that, the imagery use of colors presents the historical period in which the piece of art was produced. Particularly, it relates to the issue of the fauvism era in which the artists used color in non-naturalistic ways. For instance, formally, the sky is usually painted in blue color; however, in this case, the artist used a mix of white and other dark colors. The use of these colors was in the non-naturalistic context. Notably, this is one of the characteristics of the Masks Confronting Death that makes it unique.

The use of masks in this image, as well as the blue glasses, has a historical relevance, especially with regard to the understanding of the works of James Ensor. The artist’s family dealt with the sale of items such as masks in a curiosity shop located a floor below his studio. The association with masks and different colors in the trade gave Ensor a different experience from the artists in his era most of whom drew and painted out of imagination. Notably, the use of masks and glasses was also notable in other paintings by the same artist. Consequently, the use of masks in this context describes his association and relationship with his family’s curiosity shop and partly describes the source of most of his inspiration at the time.

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The Masks Confronting Death presents a cultural struggle with the understanding of death and life. The painting was presented after another work that the artists had titled The Entry of Christ into Brussels. This work provides a new description of death and life and, more particularly, the issue of life after death. Little was known about the life after death and, consequently, this painting presents the struggle of the masses with the understanding of death. In other words, James Ensor presented in the image his understanding of death and his preoccupation with the issue of mortality even when he pretty well knew that death was terminal. Thus, Ensor presented the values of the society he lived in and the manner in which they understood death in addition to presenting information about the lifestyle and trades in which they engaged.

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In conclusion, this paper presented the formal and historical analysis of the Masks Confronting Death painted by James Ensor. The piece of art combines fauvism and proto-expressionism with regard to the use of color in the description of emotions and the preoccupation with mortality as shown by the use of colors and the description of death. The painting presents the cultural values of the society in which Ensor lived. Additionally, it shows the artist’s relationship with the masks sold in his family’s curio shop. Ultimately, the painting depicts the struggle of the society with the understanding of death despite the fact that death is presented as terminal.