Important South African and International Art and Books

Live Auction, 11 June 2012

Evening Sale

Sold for

ZAR 17 267 000
Lot 370
  • Irma Stern; Arab

Lot Estimate
ZAR 7 000 000 - 9 000 000
Selling Price
Incl. Buyer's Premium & VAT
ZAR 17 267 000

About this Item

South African 1894-1966

signed and dated 1939

oil on canvas, in the original Zanzibar frame
66,5 by 65,5cm excluding frame


Following the record-breaking sale last year of Irma Stern’s Two Arabs for R21 166 000, the highest price ever achieved for a painting in South Africa, Stern’s Arab, another extraordinary painting from this celebrated artist, affords us an opportunity to consider the ways in which this painting is distinctive.

Since her first visit to Zanzibar in 1939, Irma Stern was captivated by its peoples and cultures. In passages from her book on Zanzibar published in 1948, Stern makes several pertinent observations:

‘The most distinguished Arab – “the truly wise and religious father” – is dressed in a pure white robe with a white turban around his white skull cap’. 1

Describing those attending a reception hosted by the Sultan of Zanzibar, Stern wrote, ‘White bearded figures belonging to another age – a thousand years or more back; gold glistening on their coats, silk woven into their rainbow-coloured turbans, wound artfully ...’ 2

Light, peace and tranquillity radiate from this remarkable portrait of wisdom. With incomparable mastery, Stern has chosen to focus all attention on this single Arab, his contemplative face infused with kindness and bathed in glowing light. The background shades ranging from the creamiest whites to Naples yellow are calculated not to detract from his memorable face. Like The Golden Shawl in the Permanent Collection of Iziko South African National Gallery, the subject is centrally placed, emphasising his iconic status. This centralised placement also creates a balanced composition that produces a calm atmosphere of meditation and reflection.

Remarkably, through her understanding of her subject as much as through the formal elements of painting, Stern has managed to integrate the spiritual and the sensual. The rich skin tones of his face are surrounded by an aureole of cloth and beard threaded through with the subtlest hints of lilac grey and soft green. The burgundy-black stripe in his turban accentuates his arched eyebrows that lead the eye down his aquiline nose to the gentle curve of his lips.

Purchased directly from the artist by the present owner's mother over 70 years ago, Arab has been in the same family since and has never before appeared on the market. It is still in its original Zanzibar frame embellished with flowers and foliage that are intended to invoke good fortune.

1 Irma Stern, Zanzibar, J L Van Schaik Ltd, Pretoria, 1948, page 12.
2 Ibid, page 55.

Buyers who may want to export this lot must obtain an export permit issued by the South African Heritage Resources Agency. The refusal of an export permit shall not permit the rescission of a sale.


Marion Arnold, Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye, Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg, 1995, page 61, illustrated in colour.

Joseph Sacks, Irma Stern and the Spirit of Africa, J.L. van Schaik Ltd. Publishers, Pretoria, 1942, illustrated with the title White Arab.

View all Irma Stern lots for sale in this auction

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