This canvas belongs to a group of pictures , including Le Salon Bourgeois, 1880 and Afternoon, Ostend, 1881 (both Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp), set in the home of Ensor’s parents at Ostend. Populated by his relations and close friends, they record the timeless ritual of domestic life. The models in Russian Music are Ensor’s younger sister, Mariette, nicknamed Mitche, and Ensor’s fellow student at the Acedemie Royale in Brussels, Willy Finch.
The disregard of conventional space ,the rough, sketchy technique and the knitted texture of bright and sombre colours indicate that , even in the early 1880s , Ensor was making a gesture of defiance against his academic training. Accused of ‘iconoclastic ideas’, Ensor resolutely turned for his artistic prototypes to the previous generation of less conventional Belgian artists , such as Hippolyte Boulenger, Henri de Braekeleer and Vogels, who had derived their own inspiration from the traditional Flemish school of colourists, going back to Rubens, and from the coarse technique of the French members of the Barbizon School such as Rousseau, Diaz and Daubigny.
As suggested by its title, the picture conveys a mood of musicality , a theme already treated by Baudelaire in the 1860s and revived in connection with the growing enthusiasm for Wagner of the 1880s. It was this evocation of music in Ensor’s painting which Khnopff adapted for his Listening to Schumann. The reference to Russian music relates to the general interest in Russian culture during the 1880s , when it was interpreted as an alternative to the reigning Naturalist and Decadent schools of art and to the more specific interest in the music of that country which Les XX introduced into their annual concerts in 1891.