Zulu Maiden was painted by Vladimir Tretchikoff when he was at the height of his artistic powers and had firmly established himself as a popular artist locally and internationally. While his prints and exhibitions of his original works would continue to break records into the 1960s it was in the late 1950s that the artist cemented his fame as well as showed his most confident handling of subject matter.
This work forms part of a series of studies of local South African people (often described as ‘anthropological’) that the artist began in the late 1940s. While there can be no doubt that there is exoticism at play in this, as in many other works from the series it should be remembered that Tretchikoff, as an immigrant to South Africa, was fascinated by all the people he saw around him, and in the same series one can, for example, find an image of a Voortrekker Girl or a Boer Farmer. Nevertheless Tretchikoff was presenting something of an idealised fantasy in this work, drawing on a wide variety of material culture in his portrayal of the Zulu Maiden’s jewellery and costume.
Zulu Maiden shows a female figure in full profile (somewhat unusually as Tretchikoff conventionally used ¾ or full-face portrayals in his work). The iconography seems to owe something to ancient Egyptian sources and the format heightens the formality and dignity of the woman painted. Tretchikoff liked to show his figures against some form of textured background and in this case the smoothness of the subject’s skin and jewellery is juxtaposed with the roughness of the zebra skin, which forms a backdrop.
This is a classic example of Tretchikoff’s work, exotic, idealised and nevertheless gripping and clearly appealing to the tens of thousands of people from all walks of life and backgrounds who purchased it in the 1950s and 60s.
Johans Borman Fine Art, Cape Town
Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town, Valdimir Tretchikoff Retrospective, May 2011, catalogue number 41
Lamprecht, Andrew. (2011) Tretchikoff: The People's Painter, Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers. Illustrated on page 171.