At the exhibition dedicated to paintings, prints and drawings by James Ensor out of collections from Belgium and The Netherlands in the Centraal Museum in Utrecht (1993), nine erotic representations by Ensor were exhibited. (1) The drawings were perhaps displayed for the public then for the first time. In the catalogue they were described as follows:
‘The series of nine erotic representations consists of six works that are apparently interpreted as naughty pastiches after late-16th-century mythological paintings in the fashion of Van Heemskerck or other North or South-Netherlandish Mannerists. The precise content and association of the series shall probably become clearer as soon as the sources are discovered. The narrative character of the last three pieces is, moreover, much smaller than in the remaining works.' (2)
We are of the opinion that the title, Compositions pour illustrer Marmontel, reported by Emile Verhaeren and Grégoire Le Roy in their respective monographs on James Ensor, corresponds to this series of nine erotic presentations. (3) The drawings in coloured pencil (20 x 28 cm) were made by James Ensor in 1903 and illustrate La Neuvaine de Cythère of the French writer and encyclopaedist Jean-François Marmontel (1723 - 1799). Marmontel wrote the prose poem in 1765, though it was published posthumously in 1820. In 1879, the poem was published by the Parisian bookseller and publisher A. Barraud in Paris with nine vignettes of a certain Fesquet. (4)
The poem consists of nine songs: (5)
In each of these nine ‘libertine songs' Marmontel describes in artistic wording the adventures of Venus. Cythera, or Kythira, mentioned in the title, is the Greek island where Venus is supposed to have been born and where the centre of her cult was found. Neuvaine means Novena, a series of nine days in which one prays to God in a special way, for procuring a grace or preparing for a Church Feast. The nine songs of Marmontel describe nine periods from the life of Venus.
James Ensor depicted each of the nine songs in an artistic, decorative and rather antiquated style with over-abundant details. Verhaeren and Le Roy mention Henri Serruys (1888 - 1952), a liberal representative of the people and later the Mayor of Ostend, as the owner of these drawings. Ensor and Serruys were both members of the still extant Ostend Cercle Coecilia, the socio-cultural association, which, among other things, organises the Bal du Rat Mort in Ostend's casino. Beginning in 1900, Ensor was regularly invited to banquets organised by the - primarily liberal - Ostend notables. Henri Serruys owned a richly stocked library and various works by Ensor, including De Processie van Sint-Godelieve (The Procession of St Godelieve) from 1932 (Tricot 623). Perhaps Serruys had given Ensor the commission to ‘interpret' La Neuvaine de Cythère from his personal library.
(1) Robert Hoozee, Lydia M.A. Schoonbaert, Herwig Todts, exhib. cat. James Ensor. Schilderijen, tekeningen en grafiek, een selectie uit Belgisch en Nederlands bezit, Centraal Museum, Utrecht 1993, cat. T 46/A thru I.
(2) Idem, p. 151.
(3) Emile Verhaeren, James Ensor, Brussels, G. Van Oest & Cie, 1908, p. 123; Grégoire Le Roy, James Ensor, Brussels & Paris, G. Van Oest, 1922, p. 189. In Le Roy, there is a printing mistake: Marmortel instead of Marmontel. The works are dated 1904 instead of 1903.
(4) A. Barraud (ed.), La Neuvaine de Cythère par Marmontel, de l'Académie française, avec notice par M. Charles Monselet, illustrée du portrait de l'auteur et de neuf vignettes dessinées par Fesquet, Paris, 1879.
(5) Parenthetically the catalogue number is found with the assignment of the images in the exhibition catalogue (Utrecht, 1993).