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Etching by Belgian artist James Ensor donated to the Getty Research Institute

May 17, 2010 |  7:00 am

Gendarmes The Getty Research Institute has acquired a hand-colored etching by the Belgian artist James Ensor, a piece that curator Louis Marchesano calls "a signpost for understanding how this radical painter, draftsman and printmaker worked out his compositions."

"The Gendarmes" (1888) is a gift from Dr. Richard A. Simms of Los Angeles.

"Ensor was one of the most important modern artists most people have never heard of," says Marchesano, the institute's curator of prints and drawings. "In the late 19th into the 20th century, he was an artist's artist. He was incredibly influential for the symbolists and for the German Expressionists, experimenting with style and technique, light and color in a wide variety of works, some of which were very political while others were landscapes and bourgeois interiors he turned into domestic nightmares by adding skeletons and masks."

"The Gendarmes" was inspired by an incident in Ensor's hometown of Ostend in which authorities used artillery to quell a protest by fisherman angered by the incursion of rival English ships.

The etching -- which measures about 7 inches by 9 1/2 inches -- shows two victims' bodies as they lay covered by sheets. "There is an atmosphere of moral turpitude," says Marchesano. "On the left are a priest and a nun with a big bulbous face kneeling in prayer. Around the bodies are gendarmes who look both comical and diabolical, including one who looks directly at us, holding up a coin. The other gendarmes are exchanging money they may have taken from the corpses. So this gendarme may be offering the coin to us or showing us the spoils of his victory."

"This is an early state of the print, which means it was like a proof impression," adds Marchesano. "First, Ensor worked out some details to complete the image in pen and ink. Once he completed the composition he used watercolor and gouache to create what is, in effect, a painting."

Marchesano considers the piece to be a perfect companion for a major Ensor work owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum. "Politically and aesthetically," he says, "this print belongs with our painting, 'Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889,' which is one of the most important paintings of the late 19th century."

The Getty collection also includes an etched version of "Christ's Entry into Brussels," donated by Simms.

-- Karen Wada

Above: "The Gendarmes" (1888), a hand-colored etching by James Ensor, is a gift to the Getty Research Institute from Dr. Richard A. Simms. Credit: © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels