Inspirational travels: Featured artworks by Irma Stern in Celebrating the Love of Art

As part of the fiftieth jubilee of La Motte's ownership by Hanneli Rupert-Koegelenberg and her family, she shares an exhibition showing some favourite works from her collection as well as the family collection. The exhibition acknowledges her appreciation of the arts and their preservation, a passion she shares with her late parents, Dr Anton and Mrs Huberte Rupert.

Celebrating the love of Art features, amongst others, works by Käthe Kollwitz, Maggie Laubser, Jean Welz and Cecil Higgs. Prominent in the current selection are paintings by Irma Stern (1894-1966). Stern was an acquaintance of Dr Anton and Mrs Huberte Rupert who bought their first artwork Still life with Magnolias (exhibited in the La Motte Museum from January-June 2020) from the artist in 1940 – a fitting example of their fine eye for exceptional artworks.


Stillife with Magnolias. 1936. oil on canvas. Collection: Rupert Art Foundation, Stellenbosch.

Born in 1884 in Schweizer-Reneke, the formidable Irma Stern spent her formative years in Germany where her vision was shaped by German culture and Modernist practice. She settled in Cape Town in 1920 and her stylistic innovations shocked a conservative provincial public, but after her death in 1966, her contribution to South African art was undisputed. By determinedly bringing modern art to the attention of the public, she did much to shift perceptions about art in South Africa.

Stern paid little heed to physical and cultural borders and travelled widely across Europe and Africa in search of new inspiration and themes to paint. In addition to living in Germany, Stern travelled to England, France, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Switzerland, Madeira, Zanzibar, the Congo, former Southern Rhodesia (as a child), North Africa and Senegal. She also travelled extensively through South Africa.

Celebrating the Love of Art features several works by Stern that were inspired by these travels, more specifically to Venice, Zanzibar, the Congo and Madeira.

 Irma Stern Venice Celebrating the Love of Art

Venice. 1937. gouache on paper. Collection: Rupert Art Foundation, Stellenbosch.

Stern reacted to the atmosphere of places and was sensitive to light and tone. She was enchanted by the architecture and water that give Venice its charm, resulting in luminous paintings such as this gouache study painted in 1937. In Venice, Stern also exhibited at the most renowned international contemporary art show, the Venice Biennale during the 1950s.


Zanzibar Woman. 1949. oil on canvas. Collection: Hanneli Rupert-Koegelenberg.

The dawn of WWII in 1939 prevented Stern from returning to Europe and she accordingly focused her travels on Africa. Her subsequent trips to Zanzibar in 1939 and 1945 were life-changing events that would continue to influence her artistic output for years to come, as is evident in this remarkable portrait of a Zanzibar Woman from Hanneli-Rupert Koegelenberg’s collection. During her journeys she collected artefacts that were to become objects in her still life compositions, and carved woodwork from Arab buildings as frames for her paintings. These frames are seen in the paintings Zanzibar Woman and The Pomegranate Seller also displayed in Celebrating the Love of Art.

Congolese Woman. 1946. oil on canvas. Collection: Rupert Art Foundation, Stellenbosch.

Stern further travelled to the former Belgian Congo (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1942 with the aim of painting the Watussi and Mangbetu people. She returned there in 1946 and 1955, with this striking portrait of a Congolese women dating from her 1946 visit. This painting from the collection of the Rupert art Foundation, is indicative of how Stern responded to the colour, pattern and rhythm of her perceived exotic surroundings, and how she responded artistically to people she found beautiful and graceful. Stern went on to compile expedition journals portraying her romantic responses to Africa which were published as Congo in 1943, and Zanzibar in 1948.


Fishers. 1963. oil on canvas. Collection: Rupert Art Foundation, Stellenbosch.

Stern would also travel to Madeira in search of new inspiration. During her first visit in 1931, she was thrilled by the bright light, vibrant colours and (her perception of) the simple way of life on the island. She wrote “Madeira, to me a wordless concept of earliest delights. Sun and bright colours, and beautiful children with big, dark eyes …” and “... But how I ever can go away from here and feel happy again I do not know – it is so full of beauty and colour and life.”  Fishing communities also featured in Stern’s paintings throughout her career since they are of importance not only in her home city of Cape Town, but also in some of her favourite destinations like Madeira and other fishing ports in the Mediterranean. She returned again in 1950 and 1963 with the painting Fishers, dating from her last visit to this treasured destination.

Irma Stern’s was always eager to travel and embark on adventures that captured her imagination and fuelled her creativity. With national and international borders only recently reopening (and in some places provisionally closing again), these paintings by Stern present a reminder of how inspirational the exploration of new destinations and learning about other cultures and places can be. Inspiring travels can, however, also be undertaken in our more immediate environments through local tourism which offers an exciting variety of experiences to reignite our sense of wonder.


Arnold, M. (1995) Irma Stern: A feast for the eye. Stellenbosch: Fernwood Press for the Rembrandt van Rijn Art Foundation.

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