The Oyster Eater
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In 19th-century Belgium, The Oyster Eater wasn’t a reputed member of gastronomical circles.

And if this person was a woman, oh boy! You’d hear the bourgeoisie frantically scratching their eyes out from miles away. I would be lying if I said that they wouldn’t be caught dead eating oysters. They ate them oysters, they all did.

Ostend, where James Ensor grew up, had the best oysters in the country. It was a delicacy, a sign of opulence. However, a woman partaking in such fineries, by herself, was unheard of. Why? Because oysters were about sex. It was both an aphrodisiac and bore a strong resemblance to lady parts. For Belgium, this was almost porn. She may as well have been masturbating.

The Antwerp Salon rejected James Ensor’s painting in 1882, citing irregularities in “form”. “...the bottom right-hand corner receded into sketchlike abstraction”, critics guffawed. James didn’t like that. These traditional art circles were giving him a hard time. He was still selling his paintings, just not the rebellious ones. This rejection led to the creation of the notorious group of Belgian artists who called themselves Les XX.

The Oyster Eater was painted way before Ensor got into masks. He got his sister Mitche to pose for him. I cannot say if she was happy with the unflattering portrayal, but James didn’t care as long as he looked good. That didn’t go exactly as planned. The Antwerp Salon made him feel like sh*t.

This was the largest painting in a series of staged scenes from the homes of the rich and fabulous. Ensor called it the Bourgeois salon. He painted the series at his family home in Ostend. The family had known money, but at this point, wealth wasn’t their friend. James and his family borrowed and leased furniture to set the stage for his paintings. He may have been trying to woo the top brass at the salon. We all know how that turned out.

Ensor’s Oyster Eater is one with the table. She devours its contents off herself. I’m seeing a dress that doubles as a tablecloth that lets you dine anywhere and everywhere. It doesn’t sound like a bad idea. I’d be willing to invest.





  1. Cheney, Liana. "The Oyster in Dutch Genre Paintings: Moral or Erotic Symbolism." Artibus Et Historiae 8, no. 15 (1987): 135-58. doi:10.2307/1483275
  2. Gural, Natasha. "Unmasking James Ensor." Forbes. June 19, 2013. Accessed June 30, 2019.
  3. "Religious Theme." Religious Theme | James Ensor. Accessed June 30, 2019.
  4. "James Ensor." Musée D'Orsay: James Ensor. February 07, 2008. Accessed June 30, 2019.
  5. Canning, Susan M. “Between the Studio and the Salon: The Intimate Theatre of James Ensor’s Interiors” (2018). Dix-Neuf. 22:3-4, 222-244. DOI: 10.1080/14787318.2019.1586320