The uniquely macabre and hallucinatory imagery of James Ensor's work is easier to understand when one thinks of his Flemish "ancestors," Bosch and Brueghel, and his Belgian Symbolist contemporaries Fernand Knopff and Felicien Rops. Ensor's precocious talent was recognized by his acceptance in the Salons of Brussels and Paris in 1880 and 1882, but his later submissions were rejected. He was a founding member of Les XX, or the Group of Twenty, anti-academic artists who organized important exhibitions of avant-garde painting and sculpture in Brussels between 1883 and 1893. Although Ensor participated in Les XX annually, by 1893 he found himself excluded from the inner circle of the Belgian avant-garde. The bulk of his oeuvre is the testament of an isolated and misunderstood artist.
The frightening content and vicious, sometimes hideous imagery that became permanent parts of Ensor's art have biographical explanations. Ensor's father, disinherited by a cultivated English family, was never comfortable among the Ostend shopkeepers of his wife's family. He died of alcoholism in 1887, having provoked in his son the fear that his own life might be equally wretched. Outrage and defensive resentment fueled Ensor's art, which included taunting self-portraits and an emphasis on large, detailed religious subjects.
In 1887 Ensor completed his first painted version of The Tribulations of St. Anthony (The Museum of Modern Art, New York). In three diagonal segments, the fantastic work depicts Anthony the desert hermit, a realm of land and sea, and the region of hell. With a brilliant palette dominated by red (the hermit reads a huge book bound in red and wears a red costume), Ensor used a technique of scribbled strokes and heavy impasto passages to animate the aerial portions of the anchorite's forbidding environment and to articulate the zoomorphic demons and human seductresses who distract Anthony from his reading.
Symbolist artists paid new attention to subjects like the temptations of St. Anthony during the revival of religious art in the late nineteenth century. The themes of terror and voluptuousness had fascinated Gustave Flaubert, who had written a highly personal novel of the saint's life (published 1874), on which some contemporary paintings are demonstrably based. Given the popularity of Flaubert's novel among the avant-garde, Ensor's attraction to the bizarre and grotesque would surely have led him to read it. It is uncertain whether Ensor's first painting of this subject was likewise inspired by Flaubert's book, but a drawing he made that same year probably was. According to Theodore Reff, that drawing "conveys more fully than any other illustration the nightmarish, Surrealist quality of Flaubert's endless processions and infinite panoramas." The inventive character of Ensor's Tribulations argues that it is probably the painter's personal interpretation of the St. Anthony story, in which he, like Flaubert, found a protagonist with whom he could identify. Ensor repeated his 1887 version in this smaller painting of 1894 with virtually no alterations.