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Lot 34*
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) Congolese beauty
Sold for £541,250 (US$ 909,743) inc. premium
Lot Details
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966)
Congolese beauty
signed and dated 'Irma Stern / 1946' (upper right), bears Grosvenor Gallery exhibition label (verso)
oil on canvas
68.6 x 50.5cm (27 x 19 7/8in).


    The collection of Lady Beit
    Sale, Sotheby's Johannesburg, 18 June 1985, Lot 157
    A private collection

    Cape Town, Jewish Art Exhibition, 29th October - 14th November, 1951
    London, Grosvenor Gallery, Irma Stern Memorial Exhibition, 14 March – 15 April 1967, no.48

    This lustrous portrait of a woman wearing a rich red headscarf was painted in 1946, when Stern made her second visit to the Congo. Although this second trip was shorter than her previous visit in 1942, she nevertheless returned, as Mona Berman relates (clearly impressed at the artist's productivity in the midst of various struggles, including malaria) "with fourteen big canvases, several charcoal drawings and a large selection of outlined work". Previous director of the Irma Stern Museum, Neville Dubow, has referred to this period of work as "a peak of excellence that could stand comparison with representational paintings anywhere else in the West... Nationally...there was no one to touch her."

    The robust brushwork and patterned cloth of the sitter's garment animates the entire picture field. The dynamic contrast of green background and red headscarf creates a visual push-and-pull within the painting, demonstrating what Marion Arnold refers to as Stern's "grasp of the expressive power of colour and her knowledge of its inherent optical capacity" – features which characterise Stern's finest works. Subtle red and green hues are repeated in the tonal variations of the sitter's skin, binding the composition together visually.

    Lady Beit (1915-2005) was born Clementine Mitford, daughter of Major Bertram Mitford (son of the 1st Lord Redesdale); the five celebrated Mitford sisters were cousins. In 1939 she married Sir Alfred Beit Bt, heir to the fortune and art collection of his father, Sir Otto Beit, the South African diamond millionaire.

    In 1959, the couple moved to Russborough House, an idyllic Irish Palladian mansion twenty miles outside Dublin. Here they found the perfect setting for their now considerable art collection, one of the finest in private hands. But the tranquility was not to last: they found themselves the victims of a series of notorious robberies, which were later to become the subject of a book and several films.

    M. Arnold, Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye, (Vlaeberg, 1995), p.49
    M. Berman, Remembering Irma, (Cape Town, 2003), p.106
    N. Dubow, Irma Stern, (Cape Town, 1974), p. 20

Saleroom notices

  • EXHIBITED: Paris, Galerie Des Beaux-Arts, Peintures d'Afrique, 3 October – 2 November 1947
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