Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) The Red Dress

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Lot 18
Irma Stern
(South African, 1894-1966)
The Red Dress

£ 250,000 - 350,000
US$ 330,000 - 460,000
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966)
The Red Dress
signed and dated 'Irma Stern/ 1949' (upper left)
oil on canvas
86 x 56cm (33 7/8 x 22 1/16in).

Footnotes

  • Provenance
    Christie's, King Street, London, 15th July 1994, lot 104.
    A private collection.


    The portrait depicts a member of the Cape's Malay community. Of German-Jewish heritage, Stern had always felt something of an outsider in Capetonian high society. She sympathised with individuals who occupied a similarly marginal role. At the time this painting was executed, the Cape Malays were still viewed as second class citizens. Many of their ancestors had originally been sent to the Cape from the East Indies as political exiles. They provided a cheap supply of labour for the newly settled Dutch colonists.

    In Stern's portrait, the young woman wears a melancholic expression that is at odds with the vibrant red of her dress. It highlights the complexity of the relationship between the white European artist and her sitter. The woman crosses her arms in front of her body; a defensive posture that indicates her wariness at being subjected to this level of scrutiny. This too was an emotion that Stern would have sympathised with; she was painfully insecure about her own physical appearance.

    The portrait also communicates Stern's fascination with other cultures. She had been an avid reader of fairytales and fantasy growing up. As an adult she tended to romanticise the 'exotic'. Different clothes, rituals, scents, languages held a strong appeal for her, offering an escape from the tedium of the everyday. It was through the Cape Malay community that the artist first came into contact with Islam. The rich hues of this young woman's dress offers Stern the opportunity to indulge her romantic preconceptions.

    Executed in 1949, the portrait was painted whilst Stern was at the height of her powers. She had grown in confidence following a number of successful exhibitions earlier in the decade. This is evident in the bold, gestural brushwork and brightly coloured palette.

    Stern's portraits are among her most sought after works. Last year, a likeness of a young Arab executed in 1945, realised £842,500 in our salerooms.
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