Ensor was born April 13, 1860, in Ostend, Belgium, and, except for three years spent at the Brussels Academy , from 1877 to 1880, he lived in Ostend all his life. His early works were of traditional subject landscapes, still lifes, portraits, interiors painted in deep, rich colors and lighted by subdued but vibrant light. In the mid-1880s, influenced by the bright color of the impressionists and the grotesque imagery of earlier Flemish masters such as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Ensor turned toward avant-garde themes and styles. He took his subject matter principally from Ostend's holiday crowds, which filled him with revulsion and disgust. Portraying individuals as clowns or skeletons or replacing their faces with carnival masks, he represented humanity as stupid, smirking, vain, and loathsome. Outstanding in this vein is his immense canvas Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889 (1888, J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, California).
Ensor deliberately used harsh, garish colors and violent, broken brushstrokes to heighten the violent effect of his subjects. His work had an important influence on 20th-century painting, his lurid subject matter paving the way for surrealism and Dada, and his techniques particularly his brushwork and his coloristic sense leading directly to expressionism. He died on November 19, 1949, in Ostend, where there is now a museum devoted to his work.