Irma Stern

1894 – 1966

by Milton Shain and Miriam Pimstone

“Searching, I roamed the world—to arrive at the origin—at beauty—at truth—away from the lies of everyday—and my longing was burning hot—then the darkness opened up and I stood at the source of the Beginning—Paradise.” (Irma Stern’s Private Journal, 1919–1924).

For Irma Stern, one of South Africa’s most outstanding artists, Africa was her “Paradise,” the intellectual and emotional mainspring of her artistic creativity. She occupies a unique place in the history of modern South African art and her works are to be found in many galleries and public collections in South Africa and abroad. She was essentially a product of two worlds. Although born in South Africa, her background, education and culture were European. However it was Africa that provided the inspiration and canvas for her art.

Irma Stern was the daughter of German-Jewish parents, Samuel and Hennie Stern, who came to South Africa around 1886. Samuel Stern first opened a small shop in the Graaff-Reinet district of the Cape Colony but later became a successful farmer in Schweizer-Reneke, Transvaal where Irma was born in 1894. In 1899, when Samuel Stern was interned by the British during the Anglo-Boer War on account of his pro-Boer sympathies, Irma and her mother left for Germany, returning to South Africa only at the end of the war in 1903 when the family relocated to Wolmaranstad in the Transvaal.

Irma and her parents traveled regularly to Germany where there were strong family connections, particularly in Berlin. In 1913 Irma left South Africa to study art at the Weimar Academy in Germany but, dissatisfied with the tuition there, she transferred her studies to the Levin-Funcke studio in Berlin. However it was only when she met Max Pechstein (1881–1955), a leading member of the German Expressionist group known as Die Brücke, that she felt she had found a true mentor. Between 1918 and 1919 her works were included in a number of exhibitions in Germany and she held her first solo exhibition in Berlin in 1919, after which she returned to South Africa.

Irma Stern’s first exhibition in South Africa in 1920 was held at Ashbey’s Gallery in Cape Town. In the staid, colonial art world of Cape Town, the vitality and exuberance of her work shocked and outraged critics and audiences, eliciting abusive descriptions such as “Agonies in Oils”, “Lunatic inspirations” and “Insults to human intelligence” and even a police investigation into complaints of public indecency! It took time for her espousal of modernism and her primary tools of color and rhythm to find acceptance in the conservative art world of South Africa. Some of her earliest support came from South Africa’s more culturally progressive Jewish community.

Over the next few years, public opinion in South Africa was positively influenced by the acknowledgement she received when she exhibited abroad in Germany, France and England, particularly when she was awarded the Prix d’Honneur at the Bordeaux Exhibition in 1927. She was also selected to represent South Africa at the Empire Art Exhibition in London in 1929.

In 1926 Irma Stern married Johannes Prinz, then professor of German at the University of Cape Town. The marriage was most unsuccessful and ended in divorce in 1934.

Irma Stern constantly sought new visual experiences through travel. In particular her journeys to Zanzibar in 1939 and 1945 and to the Congo in 1942 provided the stimulus for a flood of creative work that marked the high point of her career. At a time when travelers hesitated to penetrate “darkest Africa,” Irma Stern disappeared for weeks into central Africa where her expeditions produced many fine studies of indigenous people.

Her artistic vision came to be valued both at home and abroad and Irma Stern was the recipient of many awards, including the Molteno Grant for outstanding work (1952), the Guggenheim Foundation National Award for South Africa (1960), the Oppenheimer Award (1963) and the Medal of Honor of Die Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (1965). She was also chosen to represent South Africa at the Venice Biennale in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1958.

Irma Stern was a remarkably prolific artist, holding more than a hundred solo exhibitions. Plans were being made for a major retrospective exhibition of her work at the Grosvenor Gallery, London when she died in 1966, just two months short of her seventy-second birthday. Although best known for her paintings, Irma Stern also worked as a sculptor and ceramicist. She was a discerning collector of art and artifacts and her home in Rosebank, Cape Town, was a veritable treasure house of exquisite arts and crafts from all over the world.

On Irma Stern’s death, her home and its contents became a national legacy. In 1972 the Irma Stern Museum, administered by the University of Cape Town, was opened.


1919, 23, 27, 32–Galerie Gurlitt, Berlin

1920, 21, 22, 25, 26, 29–Ashbey’s Galleries, Cape Town

1925, 27–Galerie Goldschmidt, Breslau

1925, 29–Galerie Goldschmidt, Frankfurt

1926–Levson Gallery, Johannesburg

1926–Champion’s Art Gallery, Bloemfontein

1929–Galerie le Triptyque, Paris

1927, 29, 32–Galerie Billiet-Vorms, Paris

1928–Galerie Themis, Brussels

1929–Galerie Nierendorff, Berlin

1929–Kestner Gesellschaft. Hanover

1929–Galerie Wurthle, Vienna

1930–Galerie van Lier, Amsterdam

1930, 32, 35, 37–Galerie Kleikamp, Den Haag

1932–Foyles Gallery, London

1933, 38–MacFadyen Hall, Pretoria

1933–Lazard Galleries, Johannesbirg

1934–Newlands House, Cape Town

1934–University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch

1935, 36–Selwyn Chambers, Cape Town

1935, 36–The Criterion, Johannesburg

1935, 46–Durban Art Gallery, Durban

1937–Cooling Galleries, London

1937–Leger Gallery, London

1937, 38–Martin Melck House, Cape Town

1939–Sun Buildings, Cape Town

1939–Transvaal Art Gallery, Johannesburg

1940, 42, 47, 49, 51, 56–Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg

1941, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48–Argus Gallery, Cape Town

1942–Musée Ethnographique, Elisabethville

1945, 46–Bothner’s Gallery, Johannesburg

1947–Wildenstein, Paris

1948–Kunst Kring, Rotterdam

1948–Roland Browse & Delbanco, London

1948–Van Eeckmann, Velp

1948–Christie’s Gallery, Pretoria

1949, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 57, 58, 61, 63, 64–South African

Association of Arts Gallery, Cape Town

1953, 65–Gallery Andre Weil, Paris

1955–Van Schaik gallery, Pretoria

1955, 60–Galerie Wolfgang Gurlitt, Munich

1956–Stadt Gallerie, Linz

1956–Galerie Wassmuth, Berlin

1959–Regency Gallery, Cape Town

1959–Albini Gallery, Cape Town

1960–Stadtische Gallerie, Salzburg

1960–Staat Gallerie, Berlin

1961–Fielding Gallery, Johannesburg

1962–Lidchi Gallery, Cape Town

1965–Walter Schwitter Gallery, Pretoria

1966–Wolpe Gallery, Cape Town

1967–Grosvenor Gallery, London

1968–Rembrandt Art Centre, Johannesburg


Alexander, F. Art in South Africa Since 1900. Cape Town: 1962; Berman, E. Art and Artists of South Africa. Cape Town: 1983; Dubow, Neville. Irma Stern. Cape Town: 1974; Dubow, Neville, ed. Paradise: The Journal and Letters 1917–1933 of Irma Stern. Cape Town: 1991; Sachs, J. Irma Stern and the Spirit of Africa. Pretoria: 1942; Schoeman, Karel. Irma Stern: The Early Years 1894–1933. Cape Town: 1994.

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I am the owner of the house Samuel Stern build in Wolmaransstad

Irma Stern was the product of two worlds, the European and the African, but to the artist, who occupies a unique position in South African art, it was Africa that was "Paradise," the intellectual and emotional mainspring of her artistic creativity.

Courtesy of Milton Shain

How to cite this page

Shain, Milton and Miriam Pimstone. "Irma Stern." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 27, 2021) <>.


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