Ensor's early style of painting is characterized by somber color, thick impasto, and an earthy realism with some elements of the fantastic. Toward 1883 his palette lightened, and by 1887 his paintings were flooded with intense light and strong color. From the 1880s to 1900 he produced his most inventive and original work. Ensor's sources included the grotesque fantasies of Bosch, Bruegel, and Callot. He portrayed a fractured world, filled with leering masks, clowns, skulls and skeletons, and carnivallike scenes as well as scathingly satirical tableaux of doctors, clergy, lawyers, politicians, and other emblems of respectable society. Among his masterpieces is The Temptation of St. Anthony (1887, Mus. of Modern Art, New York City). By 1900 the significant part of his work was finished; during the last 50 years of his life his paintings show hesitant draftsmanship and an absence of internal structure. Ensor ranks as one of the great innovators of the late 19th cent.; his art transformed reality, opening the way for such 20th-century movements as surrealism and expressionism.
See J. Elesh, ed., James Ensor: The Complete Graphic Works (2 vol., 1981); D. Lesko, James Ensor: The Creative Years (1985); C. de Zegher, ed., Between Street and Mirror: The Drawings of James Ensor (museum catalog, 2001); A. Swinbourne, James Ensor (museum catalog, 2009).