Sunflowers returned from the Congo with the artist, and remained in her collection until purchased by Lady Caroline (‘Ina’) Oppenheimer two years later. Lady Oppenheimer was the second wife of Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, who founded the Anglo American Corporation in 1917, and took over de Beers in the late 1920s. The Oppenheimers were great art collectors and philanthropists, amassing a priceless collection of art and antiques at their Johannesburg estate, Brenthurst. Their patronage is recorded by Stern in her letters to her close friends Richard and Freda Feldman, writing on 24 June 1944 “have sold the Sunflowers to Lady Oppenheimer", and in her accounting ledger, “June 24 Lady Oppenheimer/ Little Brenthurst/ 3rd Ave Parktown Johb. in exchange of Malay head £44.5 taken the Sunflowers £78.15 to pay £31.10” (Irma Stern archives, National Library of South Africa). The Oppenheimers were early supporters of Stern’s work, and purchased several paintings both for their own private collection and for the South African National Gallery (Zionist Record, 15.3.1929). Stern was also the recipient of the Oppenheimer Trust Award, a prize founded in Sir Ernest’s memory, in 1963.
Irma Stern’s visual fascination with the natural world is clearly demonstrated in her still lifes, which span her full career from the 1920s to the 1960s. These depictions of flower arrangements provided the artist with an opportunity for formal experimentation, and Sunflowers illustrates perfectly the rich colours and brushwork that are typical of Stern’s work in this genre. Sunflowers is naturalistic and descriptive; it manages to combine an intensity of expression with a true sense of character and colour. The deep, sensuous blues and greens of the leaves and vase are complemented by bright accents of the golden sunflowers. In keeping with a typically Expressionist style, Stern makes use of thick impasto applied in short assertive brushstrokes, especially apparent in the moulding of the table surface and flower petals. This energetic and expressive paint application combines with the lush colours to create a uniquely colourful and vital interpretation of the traditional still life. This sensual and eclectic still life sees the artist at her most inspired; it is a quintessential Stern, infused with drama and executed with an elegant and masterful control.
These abundant and seductive still lifes were usually set up in the artist’s studio at her home in Cape Town, The Firs (now the Irma Stern Museum). While many of her paintings are the result of hasty experiments on the move, “the interior spaces of her home and the sanctuary that was her studio were as important to her as the world at large” (Marion Arnold, Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye, Vlaeberg, 1995, p. 125). To one side of her studio, French doors opened onto her mature garden, where she cultivated a wide variety of flowers including “larkspur, stocks, enormous geraniums, all shades of pelargoniums, great balls of white and also yellow daisies, violet and yellow poppies, sunflowers, and many, many roses, carnations, petunias, fuchsias” (the artist’s letter to Trude Bosse dated 14 November 1928, as quoted in Karel Schoeman, Irma Stern: The Early Years, Cape Town, 1994, p. 88). Stern was a keen collector of Chinese antiques, and the large green-glazed martaban jar depicted here (Irma Stern Museum collection no. 520) makes an appearance in numerous other works, including Still life with Dahlias 1947, Still life with Roses 1934 and Bowl of Flowers 1946 (all illustrated in Arnold, p.114, 134, 136). The distinctive Bedouin fabric also features in Vase of Poppies 1938, “a vigorously patterned cloth, occupying the foreground plane, introduces a processed design which offsets the informal pattern of pale petals in the upper format” (Arnold, p.129). Sunflowers were not a common subject for Stern, and on first glance this double variety may be mistaken for chrysanthemums. The present lot compares closely, both stylistically and in the variety depicted, with another dated 1945 in the collection of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (Irma Stern: Impressions of a Journey, Standard Bank exh. cat., Johannesburg, 2003, illustrated p.165, mistitled Chrysanthemums).
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