Painted after Irma Stern’s first visit to Zanzibar in 1939 and before her first Congo expedition in 1942, Black Lilies is a fascinating painting within the artist’s still life oeuvre. It is important to be reminded that Stern was unable to travel to Europe from 1939 to 1945 due to the Second World War. Her wanderlust was, however, somewhat satiated by her travels to Zanzibar and Congo and she created a rich and significant body of work in the period – while being confined to the African continent. Stern was often praised as being at the height of her creativity at this time and proclamations such as, “some of the best work[s] that she has ever done”, in a review of an exhibition in 1940 by a Cape Argus writer were not unusual, in the press. Indeed, the expressive brushwork, vibrant palette and bold compositions from the late 1930s and early 40s remain prized pieces by serious collectors and institutions today. Notably, eight of the ten highest prices achieved for paintings by the artist on auction are currently for portrait and still life works from this period.

Stern’s commanding sense of colour succeeds in her understanding that the ‘black’ lilies which dominate this composition are not black but traverse the deepest shades of purples, reds and blues. Arranged in a Chinese ceramic from her collection, the green stems of the lilies are offset by the deep glaze of the vase and the moody blues of the background. Next to the vase is a portion of white pumpkin – likely reduced to a single wedge by her cook, Charlie – and laid on a stark white cloth.

The lilies in the painting are often assumed to be calla lilies, from the genus Zantedeschia and indigenous to South Africa. Dr Yashica Singh, from the South African National Biodiversity Institute, however, confirms that the flowers are not from the Zantedeschia species but rather Dracunculus vulgaris , commonly named the dragon lily or dragon arum. This flower is known to give off a pungent smell which attracts insects, thus assisting the plant to be pollinated.

In 1941, in a letter written to Freda and Richard Feldman, Stern mentions that her mother had suffered a bout of Erisipelas (a bacterial infection of the upper layer of skin where a distinct odour is common). Stern may have held associations between the unique smell of the flowers and her mother’s illness. The painting goes beyond a masterfully rendered and exquisite floral composition as it movingly conveys insight into Stern’s emotional psyche when she created the work. Here, the unusual choice of black lilies is significant and deeply personal in a way to reveal her vulnerable and personal self in a still life that is intimate, strikingly beautiful, and from an immensely important point in the artist’s career.


Irma Stern, Black Lilies, 1941 | Auction Estimate: ZAR 3 500 000 – 5 000 000


Irma Stern Trust Collection Accession number- 529

Irma Stern’s Latest Exhibition: The Results of her Visit to Zanzibar, 1940. Cape Argus


Dracunculus vulgaris is endemic to the eastern Mediterranean: this includes the Balkans, extending as far as Greece, Crete, and the Aegean Islands, also to the south-western parts of Anatolia.

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