The Cathedral – 1st Plate, 1886

James Ensor (1860-1949), The Cathedral, First Plate, etching, 1886, signed and dated in pencil lower right, countersigned and titled in pencil verso. References: Delteil 7, Croquez 7, Taevernier 7 (third state of 3); Elesh 7, third state of four.  In excellent condition, the full sheet with very wide margins, 9 5/8 x 7 1/4, the sheet 18 7/8 x 13 7/8 inches.

A superb, early  impression (with an early signature), printed with tone in a brownish/black ink on ivory Japan paper.

Ensor archivist Patrick Florizoone has demonstrated that Ensor’s cathedrale is actually a composite of parts of three cathedrals: the upper left tower from the cathedral at Vienna, the upper right from Antwerp, and the lower portion from Aachen (each taken from illustrations in Le Magasin Pittoresque). But Ensor’s construction is both Gothic and modernist in spirit. It is impressionistic, both massive and light, and supremely high – in fact so high it needs to be cut off at the top! And countering this image is the huge crowd in front of it – hundreds of people, many in masks, strange hats, uniforms.

During his lifetime this was Ensor’s most famous print. Stories abound as to the evolution of the plate:  traditionally it has been said that it was lost; perhaps less dramatic, it may have been worn down after many impressions; but in any case in 1896 Ensor embarked upon an entirely new etching of the Cathedrale which appears to be made after a photographic reproduction of the original; the composition is roughly the same but – although a wonderful print – it lacks the detail, delicacy, and spirit of the first plate.