Ensor made his first steps towards art in his Belgian hometown Ostende. Guided by local painters such as Dubar and Van Cuyck he copied chromographies, drawings and paintings by renowned artists. After a year long stay at the local Academy, he moved 1877 to Brussels to study at the Académie de Bruxelles. Three years later the young painter returned to the Belgian coast and remained there for the rest of his life.
In the 1880’s Ensor began his so-called période sombre. His style was inspired by the Pre-Impressionist movement but he remained grounded in the naturalistic tradition. His early paintings were plunged in a palette of sombre colours. Usually only few accents of light illuminated the scenery. The artist presented dark middle-class interiors inspired by his own day-to-day life. His paintings featured family members and friends showing them isolated and melancholic.
In 1883, Ensor was a founding member of the Belgian avant-garde group Les XX. Although he was considered to be the group's leader he had different views on contemporary art movements than his artist colleagues. He criticized for example the impressionist movement as being too superficial while he regarded the neo-impressionist style as limited and overly calculated.
From 1886 he developed his own style by lightening up his palette and using a variety of bright colours. His exploration of light gained in intensity and the use of eccentric imagery became his trade-mark (masks, skeletons, marionettes, sea shells etc.).
The period 1888 to 1892 became the most productive and creative phase in Ensor’s career. In 1888 alone, he produced forty-five etchings. After finishing his most ambitious painting, the immense Entry of Christ into Brussels (1889), he focused on religious imagery. Ensor saw his “alter ego” in the representations of Christ. He felt isolated, persecuted and misunderstood by the general public, his fellow colleagues and art critics.
After the turn of the century, Ensor finally received acclaim and respect. His imagery became tamer, more a parody than a condemnation of society. But along with this success his artistic achievements stagnated. Many of his late works were mere variations of motives that he had painted in a similar way before. Nevertheless, his impact on the young generation was immense. His imagery and technical procedures anticipated the colouristic brilliance and the violent impact of Fauvism and German Expressionism. He influenced Belgian artists such as Léon Spilliaert, Rik Wouters, Paul Delvaux and Pierre Alechinsky.
Towards the end of his life Ensor wrote music, designed sets for ballets and painted. Ensor died in 1949 as a highly respected and honoured citizen of Oostende.