White Lilies was included in Irma Stern’s solo exhibition at the Argus Gallery in March 1941, where it was identified as among the best works. The unnamed reviewer notes that previous exhibitions by the artist had “aroused the strongest emotions in many of the spectators” and adds:
But times change and public taste becomes more sophisticated, and in these days an Irma Stern exhibition arouses so little critical antagonism that you would almost think she had become an “old master” in the full flush of her career.
Further on we read:
Her present exhibition is as full of interest as ever and it contains, perhaps, even more variety. Landscapes, seascapes, still life and portraits – the large room is vivid with colour and full of her own strong, vigorous personality. The pictures glow with the painter’s vitality.
Under the sub-heading, A LOVELY WORK, the reviewer asserts:
Some of the still life paintings, particularly “White Lilies” (34) are among the best things she has done in this manner ... i
All the hallmarks of Stern’s mature style are evident in this relatively early painting. The white lilies are articulated mainly through strong brushwork and thick, impasto paint, providing the perfect foil for the bold designs of the exotic objects and textile in the foreground. The fabric is probably of Indonesian origin and may well have been acquired along the east coast on one of Stern’s journeys en route from Cape Town to Europe. Cut and sewn into a favourite cushion cover, it is still in the UCT Irma Stern Museum today.
On the right is the picnic basket that Stern famously carried with her on many outings. Stories abound of the substantial lunches and delectable edibles that would emerge from the basket that accompanied her on her daily visits to the Argus Gallery where custodian Stella Chiappini welcomed her and visitors.
Evidence of the pleasures of reading, relaxing and feasting on figs that spill from a blue plate, anchor the foreground with their rich patterning. By contrast, the white lilies against the soft, rose-tinted background lend a calm, almost ethereal atmosphere.
With thanks to Christopher Peter of the UCT Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town, for his assistance in identifying objects in this painting.
i ‘Pictures by Irma Stern: A Vigorous and Vital Personality’, The Cape Argus, Monday March 24, 1941, page 11.