South Africa

South African artist’s paintings sold alongside Picasso and Renoir

Irma Stern, one of South Africa’s best-known artists, has three paintings that will be auctioned at Sotheby’s alongside Picasso, Degas, and Renoir. One will sell for over R4 million.

Stern was a pioneering South African artist whose work was shaped by her upbringing in South Africa and her deep fascination with the continent.

She was born in 1894 to German Jewish parents at Schweizer-Reneke, a small town in the North West Province of South Africa, but her artistic journey began in Germany during World War I. There, she immersed herself in the burgeoning Expressionist movement. 

This artistic style, characterised by intense colours and a focus on emotions, resonated deeply with Stern and became the foundation of her artistic approach. Her first solo exhibition in Berlin in 1919 showcased her newly developed style.

Upon returning to South Africa in 1920, Stern’s expressive style clashed with the local conservative art scene. 

Her portraits often depict black people in a style reflecting dignity and individuality, which challenged the status quo in South Africa. This saw Stern face intense criticism and even police investigations. 

However, her undeniable talent won over audiences over time, and she became a leading figure in the South African art world.

It was only in her late forties that Stern’s reputation was firmly established in South Africa. During the 1950s and 1960s, her works entered the major South African public collections.

Today, she is considered one of South Africa’s most important artists. Her former Cape Town residence is now the Irma Stern Museum, a treasure trove of her works and a testament to her enduring legacy.

International impact

However, Stern’s influence is not limited to South Africa, as her art is sold at auctions worldwide.

In 2000, one of her works sold at Sotheby’s South Africa in Johannesburg for an all-time record of R1.7 million. This record was soon broken in 2007 when her 1936 Portrait of an Indian Woman was sold for R6.6 million.

Stern’s Gladioli was sold for an all-time high of R13.3 million in 2010 and was followed by the sale of Bahora Girl for R26.7 million later that year.

A new South African record was set in March 2011 when a Stern painting sold for R34 million at Bonhams, London.

Last year, Stern broke another record when her painting, Children Reading the Koran, sold for R22.3 million and became the most expensive artwork sold at an African auction hosted by Strauss & Co.

Recently, auction house Sotheby’s –  one of the world’s premier destinations for art and luxury – announced that three Stern paintings would be sold at one of its upcoming auctions.

Sotheby’s Modern Day Auction features 102 artworks, including pieces from Picasso, Degas and Renoir. 

Three of Stern’s paintings will be auctioned off on 26 July, with estimates projecting they will rake in millions –

  • Still Life with Watermelons is estimated at £140,000 – £180,000 (R3.17 million – R4.07 million)
  • Seated Figures, Madeira is estimated at £4,000 – £6,000 (R90,534 – R135,801)
  • Nude is estimated at £1,500 – £2,000 (R33,950 – R45,267)

Strauss & Co chairperson Frank Kilbourn said last year that there is a strong demand for South African artist Pierneef’s work, which, coupled with the Stern painting’s success, made for the most robust bidding the auction house has seen since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It speaks to the inherent strength and quality of the South African art scene,” he said.  “If you put up high-quality work, there is still strong demand in South Africa and internationally.” 

Below are the three paintings that are up for auction at Sotheby’s in July this year.

Still Life with Watermelons
Seated Figures, Madeira


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