James Ensor is one of the most original and bizarre artists in the history of art in Belgium. At the beginning of his career he painted interiors of middleclass citizens known as 'bourgeois salons'. Through the Brussels art circle 'Les Vingt' he was introduced to the irrational Symbolism of the French artist Odilon Redon. The papiermàché carnival masks sold in Ensor's mother's shop were an interesting source of inspiration for developing a highly personal imagery. It is more than likely that this 'Old Lady with Masks' was initially intended as a portrait. Ensor reworked the portrait by adding a multitude of masks that radically changed the atmosphere of the scene. It was shown in 1891 at the exhibition of 'Les Vingt' in Brussels this time with the title 'Le théàtre des masques' or 'Bouquet d'artifice'. This 'Old Lady with Masks' is intriguing on account of the remarkable contrast between the peaceful and gentle expression of the woman and the fearsome and threatening masks that surround her.