Irma Stern

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Irma Stern
Photo of Irma Stern.jpg
Irma Analize Stern

(1894-10-02)2 October 1894
Died23 August 1966(1966-08-23) (aged 71)
Cape Town, South Africa
Known forPainting
Johannes Prinz
(m. 1926; div. 1934)

Irma Stern (2 October 1894 – 23 August 1966) was a major South African artist who achieved national and international recognition in her lifetime.


Stern was born in Schweizer-Reneke, a small town in the Transvaal, of German-Jewish parents. Her father was interned in a concentration camp by the British during the Second Boer War because of his pro-Boer leanings. Irma and her younger brother, Rudi, were thus taken to Cape Town by their mother. In 1901, the family returned to Germany and later would constantly travel between South Africa and Germany. This travel also influenced Irma's development as an artist.

In 1913 Stern studied art in Germany at the Weimar Academy, in 1914 at the Levin-Funcke Studio[1] and notably from 1917 with Max Pechstein, a founder of the Novembergruppe. Stern was associated with the German Expressionist painters of this period.[2] She held her first exhibition in Berlin in 1919. In 1920 Stern returned to Cape Town with her family, where she was first derided and dismissed as an artist before later becoming an established artist by the 1940s.

In 1926 Stern married Johannes Prinz, her former tutor, who subsequently became professor of German at the University of Cape Town. They were divorced in 1934.

Irma Stern travelled extensively in Europe and explored southern Africa, Zanzibar and the Congo region. These trips provided a wide range of subject matter for her paintings and gave her opportunities to acquire and assemble a collection of artifacts. Stern's intention was to travel extensively in her lifetime: in 1931 to Madeira, in 1937 and 1938 to Dakar, Senegal, 1939 and 1945 Zanzibar, the Congo region in 1942, 1946 and 1955, 1952 Madeira, 1952 Israel, 1955 Turkey, 1960 Spain and 1963 France. Stern also travelled extensively in South Africa, for example in 1926 to Swaziland and Pondoland, in 1933 to Namaqualand, in 1936 generally, and in 1941 to the Eastern Cape. Stern refused to either travel or exhibit in Germany during the period of the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945. These expeditions resulted in a wealth of artistic creativity and energy as well as the publication of two illustrated journals: Congo, published in 1943 and Zanzibar in 1948.


Almost one hundred solo exhibitions were held during her lifetime both in South Africa and Europe, including Germany, France, Italy and England. Although accepted in Europe, her work was unappreciated at first in South Africa, where critics derided her early exhibitions in the 1920s with reviews titled such as "Art of Miss Irma Stern - Ugliness as a cult".[citation needed]

The Irma Stern Museum was established in 1971 and is the house the artist lived in for almost four decades. She moved into The Firs in Rondebosch in 1927 and lived there until her death. Several of the rooms are furnished as she arranged them while upstairs there is a commercial gallery used by contemporary South African artists.

On 8 May 2000, one of her works sold at Sotheby's South Africa in Johannesburg for an all-time record of R1.7 million.[3] This record was soon broken, however, and in March 2007, her 1936 Portrait of an Indian woman was sold for R6.6 million.[4] Stern's Gladioli was sold for an all-time high of R13.3 million in October 2010,[5] but was then followed by the sale of Bahora Girl for R26.7 million later that month[6] - both were also records for sales of South African art at the time. A new South African record was set in March 2011, when a Stern painting sold for R34 million at Bonhams, London.[citation needed]

On 11 November 2012, Stern's painting Fishing Boats was stolen along with four other paintings from a museum in Pretoria. A tip-off led South African police to a cemetery in Port Elizabeth, where four of the five paintings were recovered from under a bench.[7]

From 3 November 2021 to 1 August 2022, the Norval Foundation gallery in Cape Town presents important paintings produced by Irma Stern during her two stays in Zanzibar during the period of 1939 to 1945, and commented on these works as follows:[8]

Her heavily-laden brush deposits swathes of colour and a tracery of mark that evokes at times the sweep and syncopation of Islamic calligraphy. The calligraphy that she encountered in the carved cartouches of the lintels of Zanzibari doors and the Islamic manuscripts which she collected, armed and liberated her mark-making. The boldness of her impasto brushwork results in a tangible embodiment of her sitters and their contexts, such that her decision to frame the works using fragments of Zanzibari doors feels completely in keeping.

— Norval Foundation, Cape Town, The Zanzibari Years: Irma Stern



  • At home with Irma Stern: A guidebook to the UCT Irma Stern Museum, by Helene Smuts ISBN 978-0-620-39702-5
  • Hidden Treasures: Irma Stern – Her Books, Painted Book Covers and Bookplates, by Irene Below ISBN 0-620-26727-5
  • Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye, by Marion Arnold ISBN 0-620-19014-0
  • Irma Stern and the Racial Paradox of South African Modern Art: Audacities of Color, by LaNitra M. Berger ISBN 978-1-350-18749-8
  • Irma Stern: The Early Years (1894–1933), by Karel Schoeman ISBN 0-86968-112-5
  • Paradise, the Journal and Letters (1917–1933) of Irma Stern Edited with a Commentary, by Neville Dubow ISBN 1-874812-08-X
  • Remembering Irma: Irma Stern: A Memoir with Letters. ISBN 1-919930-27-2


  1. ^ Shain, Milton; Pimstone, Miriam. "Irma Stern". Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  2. ^ "Irma Stern". AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  3. ^ "Irma Stern". ARTicle!. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  4. ^ "Auction action in Cape Town". Artthrob. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  5. ^ Irma Stern work sells for record R13.3m
  6. ^ "New Irma Stern record". Archived from the original on 31 October 2010. Retrieved 29 October 2010.
  7. ^ "South Africa art stolen from Pretoria museum recovered", BBC News, United Kingdom, 2012, retrieved 15 November 2012
  8. ^ "The Zanzibari Years: Irma Stern | Norval Foundation". Retrieved 4 March 2022.

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