The present lot shows off Maggie Laubser at her best. Leentjie is an exquisite, intense, offbeat portrait by a brilliant, singular and honest painter. A young domestic worker on Oortmanspost, the artist’s farm in the Malmesbury District, Leentjie was evidently beautiful, with large, clear eyes, an open face, and deep brown, glistening skin. She sat for the artist with her hair casually shaped, wearing a lace vest, blue smock, and a pink blouse just lighter than her lips.
By arranging her sitter off-centre, and catching her with her gaze directed away from the artist, Laubser reworked a portrait composition that had served her so well in the 1920s. Leentjie’s averted eyes evoke the sense of pastoral innocence that characterise the artist’s finest portraits, while the position of the head presents the best opportunity to paint a meaningful background. In this instance, a rustic farm cottage, thatched and gently lit from within, helps contextualise the sitter, while boulderlike clouds, given volume by different shades of purple, grey and blue, enclose the scene.
While the work only includes the artist’s initials on the sitter’s sleeve, its remarkable quality, not to mention its stylistic elements – the dense, expressive painting of the head, the intimate if direct composition, and the fearless, rich colour – helps date the work to 1928, or very close to it. Leentjie also bears a striking resemblance to the tender and magnificent Portrait of a Girl with Geese, that would have been executed at a similar time and in a similar mood. Both portraits pulse with life, both are filled with pathos, and both might be singled out as milestone examples.
The picture has a romantic provenance. It was purchased at an exhibition in Stellenbosch, much to the disappointment of a young woman who had missed the opportunity. Overhearing her regret, the new owner approached the woman with a lighthearted offer. She was promised the painting for her home, but only on condition of marriage. Although strangers then, a relationship developed, and the promise was fulfilled.