His mother sold souvenirs, carnival masks, dolls and chinoiserie; Ensor grew up in her curiosity shop…
Everything his mother sold he painted, jumbled to a purpose.
It was his grandparents’ shop, which the boy visited often. His father managed it for a while and nearly drove it to bankruptcy. Ensor’s maternal aunt took over the shop’s finances afterwards. Anna Swinbourne quotes Ensor in Meeting James Ensor (2009):
My grandparents had in Ostend… a shop selling sea shells, lace, rare stuffed fish, old books, prints, jams, china, an inextricable assortment of objects constantly being knocked over by cats, noisy parrots and a monkey… My childhood was filled with marvelous dreams and frequent visits to my grandmother’s shop, with its iridescent glow from the reflections of the shells, sumptuous lace, strange stuffed animals and terrible savage weapons that terrified me… This exceptional milieu without doubt developed my artistic faculties and my grandmother was my great inspiration.
In The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig recalls meeting Ensor in or near Ostend on the very eve of WWI, alreasy after the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia:
We had spent the afternoon at the house of James Ensor, Belgium’s greatest painter, a very reticent and retiring sort of man, who was much prouder of the poor and petty waltzes and polkas that he composed for the military band than he was of his fantastic paintings in glowing colours. He had shown us his work, indeed rather unwillingly, for the thought that somebody might possibly purchase one of them dejected him in a buffoonist sort of way. His ideal, so his friends laughingly told me, was to sell them at a high price and then be permitted to keep them, for he was as avaricious about money as he was about his work. Whenever he was forced to part with a painting, he was plunged into despair for several days. With all his curious crotchets this genial Harpagon had made us quite jolly…
How did Ensor survive WWI, as a British passport holder in German-occupied Belgium? With British help, Ostend held out until October 1914, when a large-scale evacuation to Britain was arranged. However, Ensor stayed behind for the rest of the war.