Details & Cataloguing

Modern and Contemporary African Art


Irma Stern
1894 - 1966
signed and dated 1944 (upper right), bears partial South African National Gallery exhibition label (to the reverse)
oil on canvas
62 by 56.5cm., 24½ by 22¼in.
Painted in 1944
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Ex collection Basil Trackman, Cape Town


Marion Arnold, Irma Stern: A feast for the Eye, Vlaeberg, 1995, illustrated p.144

Catalogue Note

Although raised in the Jewish tradition, Irma Stern was not religious and did not practice any faith. A visit to her home The Firs (now the Irma Stern Museum) might suggest otherwise, with Christian imagery dominating the dining room in particular, which she decorated with her own paintings of Biblical scenes, church statues and religious icons. This was more of an art historical fascination than a theological one, with Christianity having served as the main source of inspiration and subject matter for artists throughout history until the modern period. She made 'several versions on the theme of the Pietà, in painting as well as in graphic techniques. I suspect she was drawn to the theme because it moved her dramatically and emotionally, rather than out of metaphysical speculation...There is in her art though, a good deal that is medieval in spirit, and this relates to her ability to give spiritual values a very material manifestation' (Neville Dubow, Irma Stern, Cape Town, 1974, p.14).

It was around this time that Stern’s companion Dudley Welch converted to Roman Catholicism. He moved into The Firs in 1944, the same year in which the present lot was painted, and in her letters she would comment 'Dudley is well and absolutely Catholic – you would not know him anymore – so good and holy!' and 'Dudley is more and more Catholic – he goes to church twice a day now. It drives me silly – this new development of his' (Mona Berman, Remembering Irma, Cape Town, 2003, p.134-135). No doubt they discussed faith and doctrine at home, but while Stern was tolerant of all religions, there is no evidence that she ever seriously considered converting.

She was a passionate collector of objets d’art, including Christian, Chinese and classical African art, and the small wooden Pietà sculpture depicted here can still be found in the collection of the Irma Stern Museum. While she used the Pietà as a more abstract theme and device in other works, here the depiction is more literal, with the sculpture forming the centrepiece for one of her celebrated still lifes. By its inclusion she adds a sense of pathos and gravitas to the composition, elevating it from simply a decorative flower painting:

'Pietà is an interesting dialogue between nature and art. The painting features a small wooden carving of Mary mourning the dead Christ. Probably originating from northern Germany, and possibly dating from the sixteenth century, this painted carving of death and grief is overwhelmed by a vase of gladioli. The flowers are not life-affirming; the support the theme of death in their predominantly blood red colouring and drooping rhythms. Like Christ, their life has been abruptly terminated' (Marion Arnold, Irma Stern: A feast for the Eye, Vlaeberg, 1995, p.144).

Modern and Contemporary African Art