Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) Watussi Chief's Wife, 1946

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Lot 19*
Irma Stern
(South African, 1894-1966)
Watussi Chief's Wife, 1946

Sold for £ 447,062 (US$ 566,275) inc. premium
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966)
Watussi Chief's Wife, 1946
signed and dated 'Irma Stern 1946' (upper left); signed and inscribed 'Irma Stern Cape Town' (on the reverse), signed, titled and inscribed 'Watussi Chief's Wife Irma Stern The Firs Chapel Road Rosebank Cape Town' (on the stretcher), signed 'Irma Stern' (on the reverse of the frame)
oil on canvas in original Zanzibar frame
63.2 x 50.5cm (24 7/8 x 19 7/8in).

Footnotes

  • Provenance:
    Acquired from exhibition in Paris in 1947;
    Donated as a wedding gift to the current owner's parents, 1949;
    A private US collection.

    Exhibited:
    Paris, Galerie des Beaux Arts, Irma Stern: Peintures d'Afrique, Oct 1947, no. 15.

    War prevented Stern from travelling further overseas, so in the artist made two trips to the Belgian Congo, one in 1942 and a further trip in 1946.

    Her first trip was a great success and she returned with over two hundred works and also published her book 'Congo', she exhibited these works in Johannesburg in the following year and these included her noted portraits of the Tutsi King and Queen. In a letter to Richard Feldman she states:

    "My plans are to go up to Elisabethville by rail - truck my car - then get a chauffeur there - and motor for three days - then the road stops - and I can rail my car for 12 hours then I arrive at Albertville. I shall want to paint the Watussi ...."

    Her 1946 excursion was very different in that she contracted malaria and more importantly in the four years that had passed political change had taken place, here was resentment at the Belgian colonial government and the population were restless. Stern discussed this with her friend Mona Berman:

    "It was a hoodoo trip. The last time in the Congo everything went on oiled wheels. This time everything that could go wrong went wrong.....It is all quite a different world as to what I had in mind from former time - ... The Congo this time has a creeping horror for me"

    That being said she returned with fourteen finished canvasses and many charcoal studies. The above work is one of two portraits of Tutsi (Watussi) aristocracy that were completed by Stern on this second trip and then exhibited in Paris in 1947. The nobility were portrayed as being tall descendants from Nilotic ancestry, exceptionally beautiful and noble in bearing.

    In his preface to the catalogue Jean Cassou, Director of the Musée National d'Art Moderne praised the artist and stated that she had captured:

    "An expression of Africa by an African"

    To Stern the Tutsi were a fascinating group, the elite with their aristocratic demeanour were subjects she wished to paint most fervently. She said:

    "I am expecting a Watussi lady in tomorrow. They are grand – they do not walk or work – they are nobility."

    The Tutsi are the second tribe in Rwanda and Burundi with the Hutu being the largest, but traditionally the Tutsi had held greater economic and governmental power. In 1994, following the assassination of the Rwandan and Burundi presidents there was a mass genocide of Tutsis, with between seven hundred thousand to one million being slaughtered. Also murdered in this killing spree were many Tutsi aristocracy and the Queen Rosalie Gicanda.

    The above work is enclosed in a 'Zanzibar frame'. The artist reserved these special frames for her finest works. In a letter to the current owner the artist states:

    "the frame of the picture is hand carved old Arab framing - taken off an antique Zanzibar - door. The picture was painted off center. I hope you are enjoying both. With best of wishes for the season".

    Bibliography:
    Berman, M, 'Remembering Irma', Cape Town, 2003.
    Cassou, Jean, 'Irma Stern, peintures, Paris, Galerie des Beaux-Arts, 1947.
Contacts
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) Watussi Chief's Wife, 1946
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) Watussi Chief's Wife, 1946
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) Watussi Chief's Wife, 1946
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