Maud Sumner (1902 - 1985)

Maud Sumner was a highly gifted and sensitive artist; in the words of Ridley Beeton, a person of “infinite variety”. Sumner’s oeuvre includes painting, drawing, poetry and writing. Beeton explains that in her poem “Afterwards”, written in the latter years of her life, she reveals her concern with the quality and standing of her work and whether or not it held sufficient meaning to her existence. She is considered one of the most international of South Africa’s artists, due to her experience of French, English and South African life.

Sumner graduated from Roedean School in Johannesburg, and eventually moved to London, first studying Literature at Oxford from 1922 to 1925 and later studying Painting at Westminster School of Arts. Attracted to the French art scene, she moved to Paris in 1926, where she studied for four years at the Academie de la Grande Chaumière, returning on several occasions later in her career to further her art training and work at the Ateliers d’Art Sacré. She had her first solo exhibition at Galerie Druet in Paris in 1932.

Sumner identified herself with French art in her early years. Spending most of her time in Paris, and influenced by her teachers Desvallières and Denis, she absorbed herself in the colourful, lively art that depicted everyday life – a style of art which was developing following a period of Neo-Impressionism. She immersed herself in the warmth of French Intimism, focusing on studio interiors and various types of still life compositions. During this time, Sumner’s art was absorbed by the richness of colour and texture of everyday objects, flowers, interiors and figures. A trip to Spain in 1936 provided new material, and she was deeply influenced by the work of El Greco. Around 1940, after the start of the Second World War, she moved back to England, continuing her art career in Warwickshire.

In 1941, she returned to South Africa, maintaining the Intimist tradition she had begun in France. Her painting was not focused on the veld or the landscape of her native country, but primarily on interiors, still life compositions and the human figure. These works were shown at exhibitions of the New Group, and were attuned with Post-Impressionist works by artists such as Enslin du Plessis, Gregoire Boonzaier and Terence McCaw. Sumner stayed in South Africa until 1949, holding at least 16 solo exhibitions between 1941 and 1945.

On her return to France, Sumner found a post-war Paris that was significantly altered: there was a movement towards abstraction and, in her words, a “renaissance of colour”. Influenced by the Rayonnist movement as well by as a fellow artist, Paul Berçot, Sumner’s style changed considerably, and she began to produce more experimental work. She initiated her period of “fragmentation”, described by Albert Werth as “the breaking up and restructuring of lines and plains”.

During a large part of her artistic career, Sumner divided her time between London, Paris and Johannesburg, frequently exhibiting in the latter two cities. It was only in her later years that the vast spaces, simplicity and intense colour of her native South Africa began to influence her art.

According to Harmsen and Werth, Sumner’s 1953 journey by aircraft from Johannesburg to the Holy Land had a profound effect on her work. During her flight to Israel with a view from above, she was able to gain an entirely new perspective of the land, as well as previously unimagined views of the sky and the stratosphere. The experience instilled in her a keen interest in desert scenes; and from 1954, she began to paint the desert in distant views of land and sky, softening her colour tones and moving towards heavier abstraction. These works were introspective in nature, displaying a sense of spirituality and serenity that contrasted with a feeling of loneliness in the empty landscapes. It was for these aspects that a critic named her “the painter of emptiness and silence” (Eglington, 1967).

Sumner also began to travel to the Namib Desert in the 1960’s. Esmé Berman describes her Namib paintings of this period as some of the finest works of one the most active parts of her career. Accordingly, Albert Werth writes:

“In the last ten to fifteen years of her life Africa dominated her work increasingly. This is linked with the growing internalization of her perception in her later years, the increasing introspection which was to lead to her profoundest work. In these introspective paintings of great spiritual and physical simplification she lost nothing of her ability to use paint in a masterly fashion. Her dexterity in its application, her superb sense of colour and her fine technique was to remain with her to the end (1992:5)”.

Maud Sumner is characterized as one of South Africa’s finest artists, and is particularly celebrated for her watercolours. She was awarded the Medal of Honour by the ‘Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns’ in November of 1971, accompanied by a sensationally successful “semi-retrospective” exhibition at the South African Association of Arts Gallery in Pretoria.

During her stay in Paris in 1978, she was diagnosed with Guillaume Barré syndrome, a rare peripheral nerve disorder. Maud Sumner died in early January 1985 at her home in Melrose, Johannesburg. She remained an active artist and poet until her death. Werth writes of Sumner, “In the context of South African art she certainly stands as a major artist, an artist with a strong vision and a very active imagination, who knew how to give expression to her vision in paintings of great artistic merit (1992:6)”.


Beeton, R. (1992). “Maud Sumner: Tribute” in Harmsen, F. Maud Sumner, Painter and Poet, Van Schaik Publishers: Hatfield: 1.

Berman, E. (1996). Art and Artists of South Africa, Southern Book Publishers: Western Cape, 443-446.

Harmsen, F. (1992). Maud Sumner, Painter and Poet, Van Schaik Publishers: Hatfield.

Werth, A. (1992). “Maud Sumner: An Appreciation” in Harmsen, F. Maud Sumner, Painter and Poet, Van Schaik Publishers: Hatfield: 3-6.

Eglington, A. (1967). Maud Sumner, Purnell and Sons SA: Johannesburg.

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