Stern, Irma (1894–1966)

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Stern, Irma (1894–1966)

South African painter who introduced Expressionism to South Africa. Born in Schweizer-Reneke, Transvaal, South Africa, in 1894; died in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1966; studied at the Weimar Academy in Germany under Carl Fritjof Smith, 1913; studied at the Levin-Funcke Studio in Berlin with Gari Melchers and Martin Brandenburg, 1914; studied at the Bauhaus in Weimar; married Johannes Prinze, in 1926 (divorced 1935).

Regarded as one of the most eminent 20th-century artists in South Africa, Irma Stern was born in 1894 in Transvaal, South Africa, to German-Jewish parents. In 1901, during the Boer War, the Sterns moved to Germany. Following a visit to Zanzibar in 1904 and a brief return to South Africa in 1909, the family settled in Berlin, where Stern received her formal education in art. She studied with Carl Fritjof Smith at the Weimar Academy beginning in 1913, and with Gari Melchers and Martin Brandenburg a year later at the Levin-Funcke Studio in Berlin. She was a founding member of November-gruppe in 1916, exhibiting her work in Berlin, first at the Freie Sezession in 1918 and a year later at the Fritz Gurlitt Gallery. At age 26, Stern return to South Africa, where she would reside permanently.

Stern's extensive travels throughout Africa and Europe gave perspective to her art, which reflects an idealized merging of black and white cultural landscapes. "Unlike her contemporaries in the world of white South African art," notes Kevin Hillstrom, "Stern often chose the black inhabitants of her country as a subject." In Expressionist paintings characterized by vivid colors and lively brush strokes, Stern reveals an abiding awareness of, and respect for, the dignity of her subjects and their natural world.

Stern's artistic work was prodigious. During the 1930s and 1940s, her paintings increased substantially in number and included still-lifes, landscapes, and portraits. Although she was acclaimed by critics in Germany and France, where she exhibited her paintings, she attracted a number of critics in her homeland. According to Hillstrom, "Her sympathetic, idealized portraits of the black natives of South Africa occasionally drew the ire of the nation's apartheid government, while other observers charged that, while she created works that portrayed black people as dignified and tranquil in temperament, she never questioned the colonial underpinnings upon which apartheid rested." Stern overcame governmental objections to her work and, by the 1940s, she had secured her place in the history of South African art.

Stern exhibited her work worldwide throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and by this time her paintings were included in many important collections. Her many travels (to Zanzibar in 1939 and 1945, and to the Congo in 1942, 1946, and 1955) provided her with the visual experiences that informed her art. During the 1950s and 1960s, her travels to the French and Spanish Mediterranean areas contributed to the foundation for her later work. Following the artist's death in 1966, her Cape Town home was converted into the Irma Stern Museum, which houses a collection of own paintings and sculptures as well as the vast array of art and artifacts collected during her travels.


Harrap's Illustrated Dictionary of Art & Artists. Kent, Great Britain: Harrap's Reference, 1990.

Hillstrom, Laurie Collier, and Kevin Hillstrom, eds. Contemporary Women Artists. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1999.

Martha Jones , M.L.S., Natick, Massachusetts