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Lot 211*
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) Portrait of a Malay child
Sold for £692,000 (US$ 1,163,127) inc. premium
Auction Details
Lot Details
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966)
Portrait of a Malay child
signed and dated 'Irma Stern / 1941' (upper left)
oil on canvas
61 x 51cm (24 x 20 1/16in).


    Purchased circa 1941 by Mrs Ethel Holeyman (née Plotz)
    Bequeathed to her sister Mrs Jane Finn (née Plotz)
    Thence by direct descent to the current owner

    Irma Stern's portraits of children are among her most haunting and beautiful works. Her ability to combine the fragility of the child's body with the innocence of the face gives these portraits a true sense of the delicate balance of childhood and the ever-impending responsibility of adulthood.

    In 1916 Stern painted The Eternal Child, a work that garnered the negative attention of critics but positive affirmation from German Expressionist Max Pechstein, and as such Stern considered it her 'first' painting, refusing to sell it for nearly her entire life and speaking of its importance on many occasions. "I painted it in a sort of trance, simply following the inspiration of the moment. When I had finished it, I found it different from my other work" (The Cape Argus, 12 June 1926).

    In the 1920s and 1930s Stern revisited the subject of children several times, painting works such as Portrait of a girl eating grapes (sold in these rooms, 30 January 2008, lot 82). However by the mid-1930s, her marriage to Johannes Prinz formally ended and her maternal instincts perhaps snuffed, the already rare paintings of children more or less disappeared from her oeuvre.

    Portrait of a Malay child is a rare combination of Stern's earlier emotive paintings of children and her later studies of the diverse peoples of Africa. In the interim between her journeys to Zanzibar in 1939 and the Congo in 1942, it is clear from her letters that she was disappointed to be away from the inspiration she had found in Zanzibar. "Had the most fantastic time in Zanzibar – a heap of new friends – partly white – partly brown. A life so full of interest and fun – I am sorry I am back – as I find it more than dull and uncultured." (Berman, 2003, p.82). During this time Stern constantly reflected on her initial journey to the island, transforming inspiration from the journey into painted canvases, and seeking out the exotic amongst the population of Cape Town to inspire her current work. The subject of Portrait of a Malay child is probably drawn from the Cape Malay population of Cape Town, and like many of her works from this period, is a deeply psychological work painted in a thoughtful and expressive manner.

    The use and build-up of contrasting reds and greens to create a highly decorative background is unusual for Stern, but eloquently demonstrates the confidence with which she was able to maximise the effects of colour in her work. She often preferred a simpler and flatter background to better set off the subject, but in this case it gives an air of nobility to the subject and adds to the overall allure of the painting.

    We are grateful to Christopher Peter of the Irma Stern Museum for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.

    M. Arnold, Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye (Vlaeberg, 1995)
    M. Berman, Remembering Irma, Irma Stern: A memoir with letters (Cape Town, 2003)
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