Evening Sale

Live Virtual Auction, 19 March 2024

Evening Sale

Sold for

ZAR 17 156 250
Lot 28
  • Irma Stern; The Smoker
  • Irma Stern; The Smoker

Lot Estimate
ZAR 15 000 000 - 17 000 000
Selling Price
Incl. Buyer's Premium & VAT
ZAR 17 156 250

About this Item

South African 1894-1966
The Smoker

signed and dated 1945

oil on canvas
55 by 48cm excluding frame; 82 by 61cm including frame


Irma Stern’s artistic journeys to Zanzibar, first in 1939 and again in 1945, resulted in a series of celebrated portraits which have become highly valued for their mastery of form and subject. The Smoker – a captivating depiction of a Zanzibari man intently engaged in the act of smoking a pipe – is a classic example of these works, which showcase a masterful blend of focused energy, flamboyant painterliness and intricate descriptive detail. Stern’s focus and formal confidence during this period mark a departure from her earlier tendency to romanticise her African subjects, and as such the Zanzibari works are widely considered to be canonical examples of her mature style.

Stern emphasised that her portraits aimed to capture the individuality of the Zanzibarian people rather than stereotyping them.1 Already familiar with Zanzibar from numerous shipboard journeys to Europe, Stern’s determination to spend time on the island gave her a chance to immerse herself in the island’s dominant Muslim culture. As a non-observant Jew with a keen interest in world religions2, Stern had a history of depicting scenes of religious faith and ceremony, and by extension, the individuals who practised those faiths. The Zanzibari works are in effect a continuation of an earlier project on Cape Muslims, which evolved into a broader exploration of Islam in Africa, including a stay in Dakar in 1938.

Throughout her career, Stern’s art reflected her passion for and engagement with diverse cultures and communities. Karel Nel’s 2021 exhibition at the Norval Foundation, Irma Stern: The Zanzibari Years (on which this work was exhibited) highlighted Stern’s portraits from Zanzibar alongside earlier works from Cape Town and Dakar, and underscored the continuity in her exploration of Islamic culture. Nel showed how Stern’s travels and interactions with her subjects challenged perceptions of ethnographic art, and how her direct engagement with her subjects provides a compelling counterpoint to critiques of Orientalist, fetishist stereotyping.

The Smoker, painted during Stern’s second visit to Zanzibar in 1945, is a testament to her improvisational yet sincere approach. Committed to portraying Zanzibarians of all social classes as individuals rather than types, she brought to these portraits the same intensity and careful observation of individual character that define the portraits she painted of her friends and individuals in her immediate social circle. This commitment to individual engagement is evident in this work, where the masterful interplay of complementary colours, dynamic brushwork, and meticulous attention to detail of the sitter’s turban and textures of the background result in a vibrant and authentic portrayal.

1. Elizabeth Moore (1946) ‘Her Zanzibar Interlude’, The Monitor, 22 March, page 19.

2. Strauss & Co (2023) 'Praying Arab’ catalogue entry in Modern and Contemporary Art, Cape Town Evening Sale catalogue, page 32.


Stephan Welz & Co in Association with Sotheby's, Johannesburg, 8 November 1999, lot 482.


Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, Irma Stern: Expressions of a Journey, 2003, illustrated in the catalogue on page 69.

Norval Foundation, Cape Town, The Zanzibari Years: Irma Stern, 3 November 2021 to 28 March 2022.


Irma Stern (1948) Zanzibar, Pretoria: J. L. Van Schaik, illustrated in black and white on page 75.

View all Irma Stern lots for sale in this auction

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