She was born in the Transvaal, of German-Jewish parents. Her father was interned in a concentration camp by the British during the South African War because of his pro-Boer leanings. Irma and her younger brother, Rudi, were thus taken to Cape Town by their mother. After the war, the family returned to Germany and constant travel. This travel would influence Irma's work.
In 1913 Stern studied art in Germany at the Weimar Academy, in 1914 at the Levin-Funcke Studio and notably from 1917 with Max Pechstein, a founder of the Novembergruppe. Stern was associated with the German Expressionist painters of this period. She held her first exhibition in Berlin in 1919, the first of nearly one hundred solo exhibitions she was to hold in her lifetime. However, her first South African exhibition in Cape Town in 1922 she provoked controversy because of her modern art style. She returned to Germany, but decided to live in Cape Town in 1926. She became an established artist by the 1940s.Stern's contribution to South African art was considerable and as a consequence a major retrospective exhibition of her work was put together in 1968. In 1971 the Irma Stern Museum was opened in her home, The Firs in Rosebank, as part of the University of Cape Town's collection.
This Malay Girl with Hibiscus an oil on canvas measuring 24 x 24in. (61 x 61cm.) executed in 1944 fetched £301,250 ($460,009) last week at Christie's London.