A passion for portraiture

Strauss & Co’s second online auction for 2022 offers discerning collectors with a love of portraiture a special treat – a dedicated session on portraiture compiled by an art specialist and an award-winning South African artist. 

For hundreds of years, this art form has been a popular and important part of art history. Renaissance artists painted portraits to inspire and explore the concept of beauty, while for Dutch merchants in the 1600s a portrait by a famous artist on their Amsterdam townhouse wall displayed their wealth and status.

A portrait is both a documentary record of a particular person and a statement of our humanity. And portraiture continues to evolve, even today, as many contemporary South African artists are challenging the traditional aspects of the art form and reinventing the genre on their own terms. Strauss and Co art specialist Arisha Maharaj and Heather Gourlay-Conyngham, inaugural winner of the Sanlam National Portrait Award, are co-curating the online portraiture session, which features works by artists such as Norman Catherine, Robert Hodgins, Steven Cohen, Phillemon Hlungwani, Dorothy Kay and Blessing Ngobeni.

Blessing Ngobeni, Tax Payer.

The special themed session is part of the auction house’s initiative to offer buyers a compelling, multi-layered experience when they’re browsing and bidding on artworks online. “We’ve included different genres, mediums and art historical timelines in this session. It exposes our clients to works by artists they might not have considered before and helps them curate their collections,” says Maharaj.

Heather Gourlay-Conyngham, Self in Jan’s Turban.

One of the highlights of the March online auction is its cover lot, Self in Jan’s Turban, a striking self-portrait by Gourlay-Conyngham painted in homage to the early Northern Renaissance artist Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait, Portrait of a Man, dating from the 1390s. Van Eyck might not have invented the medium of oil paint, contrary to popular belief, but he was certainly one of its greatest exponents. He probably painted his portrait as a showpiece to demonstrate to prospective clients his extraordinary ability to capture a faithful likeness as well as the texture and sheen of fine fabric and luxurious fur.

Gourlay-Conyngham, known for her realistic idiom, matches Van Eyck step for step. Her subject matter is always acutely observed, painstakingly rendered and instilled with a contained energy ­– all qualities that can be observed in Self in Jan’s Turban. “It is my favourite in the online auction,” says Maharaj.

Robert Hodgins; The Artist’s Uncle, Mr Edward (‘Werewolf’) Hodgins.

With auctions, curators can only work from what is consigned when assembling a curated session. “You have to work with what you get,” she explains. Over the past couple of months, Strauss & Co have been gathering interesting and remarkable artworks which Maharaj and Gourlay-Conyngham have been able to work with.  “We looked at what a portrait represents, how it is similar to, or different from, the major portraits in art history, the level of the artists’ technical prowess, and their ability to capture a sense of life. Heather is a fine artist as well as an art teacher, so she is easily able to assess works for their quality and their art historical relevance, while I considered what would be saleable and what might suite our current market.

The two curators included a wide variety of artworks that explore representation and identity in different ways at different periods in South African art history. “We grouped them in terms of the themes that emerged, including a sub-theme of military portraits with work by Diane Victor and Paul Stopforth, self-portraits by Nina Romm and Nicolaas Maritz, contemporary portraits by Lionel Smit and Benon Lutaaya, skilful realistic portraits and finally abstract or quirky portraits. It created quite a debate – we had several intense discussions and endless deliberations around the artworks we chose,” she says.

There is a wide selection of South African modernist masters, as well as African contemporary artists. “Another highlight is a work by multi-award-winning contemporary South African artist Blessing Ngobeni”, she says.  In 2011 Ngobeni was the recipient of the Reinhold Cassirer Award and most recently was the 2020 Standard Bank Young Artist.

Ngobeni’s work has been compared to that of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Strauss & Co is thrilled to offer one of his works on the March Online sale, as they don’t come up on auction very often.

Maharaj and Gourlay-Conyngham will be hosting a webinar on 10 March 2022 and will be discussing portraiture and the exciting array of artworks included in this specially curated session.

Visit for more information. 

Strauss & Co’s March Online-Only auction opens on Monday 7 March at 8am and close on Monday 14 March 2022 at 8pm.

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