Evening Sale

Live Virtual Auction, 28 May 2024

Evening Sale

Sold for

ZAR 4 794 500
Lot 145
  • Irma Stern; Fire Lilies (Still Life with Amaryllis)
  • Irma Stern; Fire Lilies (Still Life with Amaryllis)
  • Irma Stern; Fire Lilies (Still Life with Amaryllis)

Lot Estimate
ZAR 5 000 000 - 7 000 000
Selling Price
Incl. Buyer's Premium & VAT
ZAR 4 794 500

About this Item

South African 1894-1966
Fire Lilies (Still Life with Amaryllis)

signed and dated 1956; inscribed with the title ‘Fire Lilies’ the date and medium on a label adhered to the reverse

oil on canvas
85 by 67cm excluding frame; 117 by 99 by 8cm including frame


Irma Stern was 62, solidly into middle age, when she produced this striking still life depicting a contrasting harmony of amaryllis, the brilliantly coloured flowering bulb native to the Western Cape. Professionally, Stern was operating in overdrive. This work was produced during a pause in her epic run representing South Africa at four editions of the Venice Biennale (in 1950, 52, 54 and 58). In 1955, Stern, the child of German-Jewish émigrés, also resumed showing in Germany after an absence of two decades. Stern was hailed as ‘a very interesting woman who yet will demand a great deal of attention’ when her work was shown in Berlin in 1956.1

In Cape Town, Stern was an irrefutable artist. Her annual exhibitions at the SA Association of Arts Galleries were social events. In 1957, rather than show exclusively new work, Stern mounted a retrospective. Critics favourably reviewed the show. Matthys Bokhorst, a future director the South African National Gallery (1962–1973), praised Stern’s ‘vital art’ with its ‘strange mixture of intelligence and emotion’ and ‘exuberant, oriental sense of colour’.2 Deane Anderson praised the ‘first-rate quality’ of her earlier work. ‘But, fine as they are, I think that for vigour, colour and prodigal invention, they are surpassed by four paintings dated 1956,’ added Deanne, listing this particular composition among the four.3 This opinion stands: this lot is a fine example of Stern’s late painterly style.

Notwithstanding the steady pace at which she worked, Stern’s malleable painting technique underwent a noticeable transformation in the 1950s. Art historian Heather Martienssen notes how the unavoidable decline in vigour that came with age was, in Stern, offset by ‘elegance, sureness of touch, economy of technique’.4 These qualities are all recognisable in this late work. In distinction to the still lifes of her middle period, which feature thick impasto surfaces and showy brushwork, Stern’s compositions from her late period are less extravagantly theatrical. They often feature thinly painted surfaces (note in this work the areas around the trumpet-shaped blooms and tablecloth) and can appear unfinished. This quality is a hallmark of late Cézanne too.5 In Stern, this looseness and dissolve is counterbalanced by her unwavering commitment to colour, its luxuriousness as well as life-affirming value.

1 (1956) ‘Irma Stern Praised in Berlin’, The Cape Argus, 29 November.

2 Matthys Bokhorst (1957) ‘Irma Stern in Retrospect’, The Cape Times, 11 March.

3 Deanne Anderson (1957) ‘Retrospective exhibition by Irma Stern has a vital, dynamic energy’, The Cape Argus, 7 March.

4 Heather Martienssen (1968) ‘The Art of Irma Stern’, Lantern, December, Vol. 18, No. 2. Page 31

5 See William Rubin (1977). ‘Cézannisme and the Beginnings of Cubism’ in Cézanne: The Late Work, New York, Museum of Modern Art. Page 189.


South African Association of Arts, Cape Town, 1957.

Mr and Mrs I Pasvolsky, Cape Town, 1957.

Private Collection.


South African Association of Arts, Cape Town, Irma Stern Paintings 1916-1957, cat no. 30.

Rembrandt Art Centre and Pretoria Art Museum, Johannesburg and Pretoria, Homage to Irma Stern, 1968, cat. no. 44.

View all Irma Stern lots for sale in this auction

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