Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) Swahili Woman in the artist's original Zanzibar frame.

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Lot 17
Irma Stern
(South African, 1894-1966)
Swahili Woman in the artist's original Zanzibar frame.

US$ 950,000 - 1,200,000
£ 670,000 - 850,000
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966)
Swahili Woman
signed and dated 'Irma Stern/ 1945' (upper left)
oil on canvas
65 x 56cm (25 9/16 x 22 1/16in).
in the artist's original Zanzibar frame.


  • Provenance
    The collection of the artist;
    Acquired by Ms Lilian Rosenberg in 1965, (300 gns);
    Stephan Welz & Co auction, 19th February 2008, lot 542;
    A private collection.

    Cape Town, The Argus Gallery, 1946;
    Paris, Galerie de Beaux-Arts, 'Irma Stern: Peintures D'Afrique', 1947, no 27;
    Pretoria, Christi's Gallery, 1948, no.5;
    Wakefield, City Art Gallery, 'Art in South Africa', 1959, no 448;

    Stern, I, 'Zanzibar', pub van Schaik 1948, illust page 56.

    Painted in Zanzibar in 1945, Swahili Woman shows a noble East African lady enfolded in beautiful, traditional hand-painted robes, slightly smiling and apparently lost in thought.

    The Zanzibar paintings, mainly portraits of Arab and East African subjects with striking features, have been among Stern's best-loved works, sought by collectors from the start. She gave them distinctive frames, made from strips of deeply carved wood taken from antique doors on the island, these were reserved for her finest works.

    As early as 1947, one of the paintings was bought from a touring exhibition for the French national collection; it is now in the permanent collection at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

    Even among the many works created in one of the most productive periods of Stern's life, during the long expeditions in the 1930s and '40s to Zanzibar and the African interior Swahili Woman was clearly special to Stern.

    It was exhibited in Pretoria in 1946, featured in several international exhibitions and was included in her lavishly illustrated Zanzibar journal, which like its Congo counterpart was published to acclaim.

    However, for 20 years she kept bringing Swahili Woman back to hang on the walls of her studio in Cape Town.

    The painting was not sold by Stern until 1965, when she permitted the South African collectors, the Rosenberg family, to acquire it for the very respectable price of 300 guineas, their third piece of Stern's work.

    Lilian Rosenberg recalled the artist's undisguised hostility when she accompanied her husband to negotiate buying Swahili Woman: Stern gave her the most uncomfortable chair, and completely ignored her throughout the visit.

    In her early years, Stern was fortunate that she never needed to earn a living from her art. Later in life, when she was hand-picking patrons like the Rosenbergs, and forcing them to wait years for the privilege of acquiring her work, she certainly could have supported herself through her sales, though by then she was independently wealthy by inheritance.

    She was born in 1894 of prosperous German-Jewish parents, in the small town of Schweizer-Reneke, in Transvaal. In a radio interview in 1961, she claimed that she started to paint at the age of three, and that her earliest memories were of colour – of the brilliant blue sky above the yellow plains of the High Veld.

    Stern's mother moved her two small children to Cape Town during the Boer War, during which their father was interned by the British because of his perceived pro-Boer sympathies. The family later returned to Germany and travelled extensively in Europe for several years. By the outbreak of the First World War, Stern, who said she never contemplated any occupation other than being an artist, was studying in Germany, first at the Weimar Academy and then, when she found that too conventional and restrictive, at the Levin-Funcke Studio, where she encountered ambitious young artists bent on smashing conventions.

    Stern's poor initial reception back home in South Africa in 1920 did not dent her confidence, though it took years before she could sell anything. By 1950, having exhibited almost every year at home, and usually also in London and other European galleries, loaded with international prizes and honours, she was chosen to represent her country at the Venice Biennale, an honour repeated in 1952, '54, and '58.

    In 1926, Stern married an academic, Johannes Prinz, her former tutor, who became Professor of German at the University of Cape Town. The marriage barely lasted six years before ending in divorce: she kept the
    Firs, the handsome house her father had given them as a wedding present.

    Stern did have a devoted companion, Dudley Welch, who was also her assistant for decades, one touching story was that he held up Stern's painting of a Madeira fishing scene for her to study as she lay dying in a hospital bed. But otherwise, Stern's life had her work at its centre. She was involved in all aspects from framing the pictures, organising and hanging the exhibitions, and choosing the lucky purchasers. Her output was formidable. She wrote,

    "The pictures fell into my lap like ripe pears falling on to the grass at autumn. It was as though waves laden with fertility were breaking over my head."

    She thought about the paintings deeply until they were clear in her head, she said, but, once they were on the canvas, "I never change a line". Cape Town and even her garden did not provide nearly enough fuel for Stern's fire. She took long trips into what she regarded as the "real" Africa, travelling extensively in South Africa but also visiting Senegal, the Congo, Zanzibar and North Africa. She collected local crafts and materials by the crate – frequently exhibiting them alongside her own work – and filled sketchbooks that inspired scores of paintings.

    In Zanzibar, she found a different stimulus in the narrow streets and ancient houses of Stone Town, and the striking faces and distinctive robes of its residents. She recruited many models in the souk near her rented lodgings; she also bought extensively in the souk, acquiring antiques and contemporary crafts, but striking hard bargains, reckoning to get the prices down to at least a third.

    By the time of her death in 1966, aged 71, she was South Africa's best-known and best-regarded artist, and her reputation has been rising steadily in the 21st century.

    "The artist creates in order to become free of himself, only to find himself again in the end".

    Stern wrote, with justified pride.

Saleroom notices

  • The date of the Wakefield City Art Gallery Exhibition was 1950.
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) Swahili Woman in the artist's original Zanzibar frame.
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) Swahili Woman in the artist's original Zanzibar frame.
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) Swahili Woman in the artist's original Zanzibar frame.
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