Irma Stern was born into a prosperous German-Jewish family in Schweitzer-Renecke, South Africa on 2 October 1894. The family retained strong ties with Berlin and its artistic culture, moving often between Germany and South Africa during her childhood. She later moved to Germany, where she studied art from 1913–20 associating with the Expressionists, particularly Max Pechstein, who mentored her. Her work was included in the Secessionist exhibitions of 1918 and 1920 and she was a founder member of the Novembergruppe. In May 1919 Pechstein helped arrange her first exhibition of 33 drawings at the Fritz Gurlitt Gallery, Berlin. Stern returned to South Africa in 1920, holding her first exhibition of self-styled ‘modern art’ in Cape Town in 1922. Her adherence to Expressionism, a strong but limited colour palette and exuberant, vigorous style together with her celebration of so-called ‘primitive’ African subjects was poorly received by provincial Colonial Cape Town society and the police were called after complaints of indecency. Nevertheless, Stern continued to create a large body of highly individualistic and forceful works on her wide travels throughout Africa and Europe and became a leading figure in modern South African painting. During the era of National Socialism she broke all ties with Germany, principally travelling in East Africa during the 1940s. Her wide circle of friends included the South African Yiddish writers Rakhmiel (Richard) Feldman (1897–1968) and Dovid Fram (1903–1988).
However Stern’s celebrations of the natural African landscape and its people were actually carefully constructed, since she painted in the reserves, selecting her subjects and removing from them any sign of encroaching western civilization. Her love of the decorative also extended to an appreciation of textiles and she became a major collector of cultural artefacts, including oriental ceramics and African sculptures, which she displayed in her home and brought into her art. She often used fragments of Zanzibar doors to frame her paintings.
Although as a colourist, Stern predominantly used oils, she also produced thousands of drawings, graphic works and monotypes, sculptures and ceramics, as well as writing and illustrating travel books inspired by her trips to Zanzibar and the Congo. Supported by her parents for much of her life, Stern did not rely on picture sales. Her marriage to her former tutor Johannes Prinz (1886–1942) in 1926 ended in divorce eight years later. Irma Stern died in Cape Town, South Africa on 23 August 1966. After her death, her Cape Town home became a museum housing her paintings and drawings as well as her collection of European, African and South American art.