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date: 29 October 2020

Stern, Irmafree

Updated in this version

updated and revised

South African, 20th century, female.

Born 2 October 1894 in Schweizer-Reneke (Transvaal); died 23 August 1966 in Cape Town (South Africa).

Painter (oils and gouache), sculptor.

Portrait, still life, landscape.

Modernism, German Expressionism.

Stern was born in the small town of Transvaal (South African Republic) to parents who were of German-Jewish ancestry. Her father, Samuel Stern, held a pro-Boer political and national ideology, which led to his imprisonment when the British declared war on the Boer states (1899–1902). Stern and her brother moved to Cape Town with their mother, where they lived until Samuel’s release. The Stern family moved to Germany for a year in 1901 and returned to South Africa in 1902. The following two years were full of frequent travel, which included Zanzibar (East Africa), Naples (Italy), Rome (Italy), and Berlin (Germany) in 1904. Finally, in 1910, they settled in Berlin, and Irma began seriously studying and pursuing art.

Stern first studied at the Weimar Academy in 1913, under Carl Fritjof Smith, and then at Levin-Funcke Studio (Berlin) in 1914, under Gari Melchers and Martin Brandenburg. In 1916, she began to be associated with the German Expressionists, including Max Pechstein, a member of the influential German Expressionist group Die Brücke. Through Pechstein, Stern became well connected within the German art scene. In 1918, Stern had two paintings accepted into the Free Secession exhibition and was one of the co-founders of the Novembergruppe (Berlin).

In 1920, at the age of 26, Stern returned to South Africa, where she lived and worked throughout the rest of her life. However, she continued her frequent travels throughout the African continent. The Irma Stern Museum was founded in 1971 inside the late artist’s long-time home in Cape Town. Stern was a collector of African art and artefacts that she acquired during her trips around the African continent. The museum is home to this extensive collection, as well as a selection of paintings, drawings, and sculptures by Stern. The museum also features solo and group shows by South African artists.

Stern’s work shows the extent to which the artist’s travels through Africa and Europe inspired her subject matter. Her paintings were unique for a white Modern artist in South Africa because they mainly depicted black Africans as subjects in her portraits; and her still lives combined objects from black and white cultures into a single composition. An example of her portraiture, and interest in non-Western subjects, can be seen in works such as Two Arabs, Dakar (1938), while Still Life with African Pot combines black and white cultural objects inside of a kitchen. Her most famous painting is probably Arab in Black (1939), which made headlines when it was found inside a London apartment, covered up by letters and bills. The painting was auctioned at Bonhams London for GBP 842,500 (USD 1.3 million) on 9 September 2015. The painting was initially bought at auction by art collector Betty Suzman during the 1950s. Stern donated the work to help pay Nelson Mandela’s legal fees during his trial for high treason against the apartheid government. Stern was a prolific painter, creating a large oeuvre of landscapes, still lives, and portraits, especially between 1930 and 1940. Her portrayal of non-white subjects was sometimes harshly criticised by the all-white apartheid government in South Africa; however, her work was largely well received throughout Europe and eventually became widely respected in her native country too. She received many awards and honours for her work, including the Guggenheim Foundation National Award for South Africa (1960), the Medal of Honour for Painting by the South African Akademie (1965), and represented South Africa in four consecutive Venice Biennales (1950–1958).

Group Exhibitions

1918, Free Secession, Berlin

1920, Free Secession, Berlin

1948, Overseas Exhibition of South African Art, Tate, London

1950, Venice Biennale (representing South Africa), Venice

1952, Venice Biennale (representing South Africa), Venice

1954, Venice Biennale (representing South Africa), Venice

1958, Venice Biennale (representing South Africa), Venice

2012, Making Faces: Exploring Contemporary Practice Through Portraiture, Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town

2017, Painted Surfaces, Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town

Solo Exhibitions

1919, Fritz Gurlitt Gallery, Berlin

1922, An Exhibition of Modern Art by Miss Irma Stern, Ashbey’s Galleries, Cape Town

1925, Galerie Goldschmidt, Breslau

1926, Levson Gallery, Johannesburg

1927, Galerie Billet-Vorms, Paris

1928, Galerie Themis, Brussels

1929, Galerie le Triptyque, Paris

1930, Galerie Würthle, Vienna

1932, Galerie Kleikamp, Den Haag

1932, The Gallery at Foyles, London

1933, Lazard Galleries, Johannesburg

1935, The Criterion, Johannesburg

1937, Cooling Galleries, London

1939, Transvaal Art Gallery, Johannesburg

1940, Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg

1941, Argus Gallery, Cape Town

1945, Bothner’s Gallery, Johannesburg

1947, Wildenstein, Paris

1948, Christie’s Gallery, Pretoria

1950, South African Association of Arts Gallery, Cape Town

1953, Galerie Andre Weil, Paris

1955, Van Schaik Gallery, Pretoria

1956, Stadt Galerie, Linz

1959, Regency Gallery, Cape Town

1960, Städtische Galerie, Salzburg

1960, Staat Galerie, Berlin

1961, Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg

1962, Lidchi Gallery, Cape Town

1965, Water Schwitter Gallery, Pretoria

1966, Wolpe Gallery, Cape Town

1967, Grosvenor Gallery (retrospective), London

1968, Rembrandt Art Centre, Johannesburg

2003, Irma Stern: Expressions of a Journey, Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg

2015, Brushing Up on Stern, Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town

Museum and Gallery Holdings

Cape Town (Irma Stern Mus.): Dakar Figures Seated (1938, gouache on paper); Congo Landscape: Jungle (1942, oil on canvas); Congolese Woman (1946, oil on canvas); Sleeping Zulu Woman (1935, gouache on paper); Portrait of Ursula (1954, oil on canvas); Rich Old Arab (1945, oil on canvas); Two Heads (1952, gouache on paper); Head of a Young Girl (1930, gouache on paper); African Girl (1935, charcoal on board); Seated African Woman with Pot (1955, gouache on paper); Three Swazi Sisters (1925, oil on canvas); Natal Landscape (1936, oil on canvas); Still Life with Antirrhinums (1963, oil on canvas); Boats (1963, oil on canvas); Figure on a Pillow (1947, ink and wash on paper); Tree (1945, ink, wash, and crayon on paper); Textile Traders (1955, gouache and crayon on paper); The Bay (Canara de Lobos) (1963, oil on canvas); Young Girl (n.d., cement); Bad News (n.d., cement); Mother and Child (1949, glazed earthenware); African Woman (n.d., cement); Vase (n.d., painted slip); Jug (1949, glazed earthenware)

Cape Town (Iziko South African NG): The Golden Shawl (1945, oil on canvas)

Johannesburg (AG)

Paris (Centre Georges Pompidou)

Pretoria (AM)

Qatar (Orientalist Mus.)

Auction Records

Johannesburg, 17 March 1976: Village in the Transkei (1929, oil on canvas, 26½ × 30¼ ins/67 × 77 cm) ZAR 1,400

Johannesburg, 21 June 1983: Head of a Pondo Man (1929, charcoal, 23¾ × 18¼ ins/60.5 × 46.5 cm) ZAR 1,000

Johannesburg, 29 Nov 1983: Still-life with Amaryllis (1936, oil on mounted card, 32¼ × 29¼ ins/82 × 74 cm) ZAR 15,000

London, 23 March 2011: Arab Priest (1945, oil on canvas, 38¼ × 33¾ ins/97 × 86 cm) GBP 3,044,000

Cape Town, 26 Sept 2011: Two Arabs (1939, oil on canvas, 29¾ × 38 ins/75 × 97 cm) ZAR 21,166,000

London, 2 Oct 2013: The Malay Bride (1942, oil on canvas, 273/16 × 201/16 ins/69 × 51 cm) GBP 1,202,500; Still Llife with Amaryllis (1940, oil on canvas, 347/16 × 373/16 ins/87.5 × 94.5cm) GBP 326,500; Nude (1934, watercolour, 7⅞ × 77/8 ins/20 × 20 cm) GBP 5,625; African Princess (1931, 107/16 × 8¼ ins/ 26.5 × 21 cm) GBP 5,250; Malay Girl with Fruit (1949, oil on board, 2413/16 × 20½ ins/63 × 52 cm) GBP 182,500; Harbour Scene (1952, gouache on paper, 91/16 × 12⅝ ins/23 × 32 cm) GBP 8,750; Fruit Pickers in an Orchard (1964, oil on canvas, 27 × 201/16 ins/68.5 × 51 cm) GBP 56,250

London, 19 March 2014: Zanzibar Woman (1939, oil on canvas, 24 × 20½ ins/61 × 52 cm) GBP 1,082,500

London, 9 Sept 2015: Arab in Black (1939, oil on canvas, 24 × 201/16 ins/61 × 51 cm) GBP 842,500

London, 13 Sept 2017: Portrait of a Watussi Lady (1942, charcoal on paper, 25⅝ × 17 ins/62.5 × 45.5 cm) GBP 9,375; Head Study of an African Woman (1952, red chalk on paper, 277/16 × 16 ins/54.5 × 40.5 cm) GBP 1,875

London, 14 Dec 2017: Malay Woman (1924, oil on canvas, 23 × 17ins/58.4 × 43.2cm) GBP 106,250


  • Osborn, Max: Irma Stern, Klinkhardt & Biermann, Leipzig, 1927.
  • Stern, Irma: Congo, J.L. van Schaik, Pretoria, 1943.
  • Stern, Irma: Zanzibar, J.L. van Schaik, Pretoria, 1948.
  • Dubow, Neville: Paradise: The Journal and Letters 1917–1933 of Irma Stern, Chameleon Press, Hong Kong, 1991.
  • Schoeman, Karel: Irma Stern: The Early Years 1894–1933, South African Library Consortia, Auckland Park, 1994.
  • Arnold, Marion: Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye, Rembrandt van Rijn Foundation, Stellenbosch, 1995.
  • Berman, Mona: Remembering Irma. Irma Stern: A Memoir with Letters, Double Storey, Cape Town, 2003.
  • Lewis, Andrea/Albert, Shea (ed.): Journeys to the Interior: Unseen Works by Irma Stern, 1929–1939, exhibition catalogue, Kaplan-Kushlick Foundation, Cape Town, 2006.
  • Smuts, Helene: At Home with Irma Stern: A Guidebook to the UCT Irma Stern Museum, Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town, 2007.
  • Lewis, Andrea (ed.)/Kaufmann, Carol (ed.): Brushing Up on Stern: Featuring Works from the Permanent Collection of the Iziko South African National Gallery, exhibition catalogue, Iziko Museums of South Africa, Cape Town, 2015.
  • Klopper, Sandra: Irma Stern: Are You Still Alive? Stern’s Life and Art Seen through Her Letters to Richard and Freda Feldman, 1934–1966, Orisha Publishing, Cape Town, 2017.