Marlene Dumas: Life, Paintings, and Major Accomplishments of the South African Contemporary Artist

World History Edu takes a deep dive into the life, notable paintings, and major achievements of Marlene Dumas, a profound voice in contemporary art.

Contemporary African artists

Born in 1953 in Cape Town, Marlene Dumas grew up during apartheid in Kuils River, where her father managed a vineyard. Only as a teenager did she realize apartheid’s depth. The political turmoil influenced her decision to leave South Africa and deeply impacted her art.

Her Early Life

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1953, Marlene Dumas grew up during the height of apartheid, a period of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa. This tumultuous backdrop would go on to significantly influence her artwork.

Educational Background

Dumas moved to Amsterdam in 1976 after completing her studies in Fine Arts from the University of Cape Town. She attended Ateliers ’63 in Haarlem and has remained in Amsterdam ever since.

Artistic Style and Influence

Dumas is primarily recognized as a painter, although her portfolio also includes drawings and prints. Her art is characterized by its intense, psychologically-charged content. Drawing inspiration from personal experiences, photographs, the media, and art history, her work often confronts themes of race, sexuality, identity, and sociopolitical tension.

Her painting method is uniquely her own. Starting with wet surfaces, she allows the paint to run, resulting in blurred details, watery effects, and distorted features. This gives her figures an eerie, ghostly appearance, heightening the emotional intensity of her subjects.

From 1973, Dumas began producing art that pondered her identity as a white woman raised in South Africa. She utilized diverse mediums, including collage, text art, and painting, to express her reflections and experiences. Image: Genetic Longing (1984) by Marlene Dumas

Major Accomplishments

Marlene Dumas, a South African artist, is celebrated for her emotionally-charged paintings that tackle themes of identity, race, and sexuality, achieving global recognition and setting significant auction records.

  1. Recognition as a Leading Contemporary Artist: Dumas has been recognized as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists. Her approach to portraiture and the human figure is both innovative and deeply emotional, often eliciting strong reactions from viewers.
  2. High Auction Results: Dumas made headlines in 2005 when her painting “The Teacher” (1987) became the most expensive work created by a living female artist, selling for £1.8m at Christie’s. Just three years later, she broke her own record when “The Visitor” (1995) sold for £3.1m at Sotheby’s.
  3. Major Exhibitions Worldwide: Over the decades, Dumas’s work has been showcased at major institutions worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern in London, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, affirming her place in the global art landscape.
  4. Exploration of South African Identity: While her work has broad appeal, Dumas’s South African roots are evident in many pieces. Her works delve into the complexities of identity, particularly within the context of apartheid-era South Africa.

Marlene Dumas’ art delves into taboo, personal, and political subjects, from childhood complexities to white South African identity, and themes like prostitution, war, and death. Image: “The Visitor” (1995) by Marlene Dumas

Notable Paintings by Marlene Dumas

Drawing inspiration from newspapers and magazines, she frequently focuses on the human figure, adeptly capturing its dual capacity to represent internal psychological experiences and external symbols of suffering and injustice. This intricate interplay of inner emotion and societal observation positions Dumas as a profound voice in contemporary art, unafraid to challenge and reflect on poignant issues. Image: “The Teacher” (1987) by South African artist Marlene Dumas

  • “Evil is Banal” (1984): One of her earlier works, this piece delves into the dichotomy between appearance and reality, innocence and malevolence.
  • “The Teacher” (1987): This painting powerfully echoes apartheid-era tensions. Drawing from a class photo, this painting portrays South Africa’s racial discrimination vividly. Its 2005 sale at Christie’s London garnered nearly $3 million, reflecting its historical and artistic importance.
  • “The Painter” (1994): This work showcases a child with paint-smudged hands and face, a direct confrontation with the nature of the artistic process and the blurred lines between innocence and experience.
  • “The Visitor” (1995): Marlene Dumas’s 1995 artwork “The Visitor” showcases prostitutes by an open door, the visitor hidden. Dumas frequently references photos in her pieces, including news images from global events. “The Visitor” was inspired by a 1960s Nevada brothel photograph. The artwork was exhibited in the 2007 Hayward Gallery’s “The Painting of Modern Life.”
  • “Amy – Blue” (2011): A haunting portrait of the late singer Amy Winehouse, Dumas’s painting showcases the vulnerability and tragedy of a public life.

Legacy and Impact

Marlene Dumas stands as a formidable voice in contemporary art. Her works are both deeply personal and universally relatable, touching on universal themes of love, hate, despair, and hope. By challenging the conventional norms of portraiture, she has expanded the boundaries of what it means to capture the human essence on canvas.

Despite her global recognition, Dumas remains humble, often emphasizing the emotional over the commercial value of her works. She’s quoted saying, “I’m not interested in making ‘great’ art, whatever that might mean. My interest is in the human psyche, the soul if you wish. It’s the little, seemingly unimportant emotions that I’m after, the emotions that are so important in our daily lives.”

In 1979, Marlene Dumas debuted with a solo exhibition in Paris, and another soon after in Amsterdam. The 1980s saw her rise, as her politically-charged and emotive figurative paintings gained attention. Her unique artistic voice earned her global acclaim, with awards and significant exhibitions at renowned institutions like London’s Tate and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, solidifying her position in contemporary art. Image: Chlorosis (Love sick) (1994). By Marlene Dumas

Did you know…?

  • South African painter Marlene Dumas has appeared in films like “Miss Interpreted” (1997), “Alice Neel” (2007), “The Future is Now!” (2011), and “Screwed” (2017).
  • Marlene Dumas has contributed illustrations to numerous books including “Myths and Mortals,” “David Zwirner: 25 Years,” “Sweet Nothings,” “The Image as Burden,” and “Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Violence.”
  • Dumas’s sale of “Jule-die Vrou” (1985) ranks her among three living female artists whose works have sold for over $1 million.
  • In 2011, Marlene Dumas was honored with the Rolf Schock Prize in Visual Arts. She has been recognized with an honorary degree from the University of Antwerp. Additionally, Dumas earned degrees from the University of Cape Town, Ateliers 63 in Haarlem, and the Institute of Psychology at the University of Amsterdam.
  • Marlene Dumas has been an influential educator, teaching at esteemed institutions such as the Academie voor Beeldende Vorming in Tilburg, Academie voor Kunst en Industrie in Enschede, Rijksakademie Van Beeldende Kunsten, and De Ateliers in Amsterdam. Her significant impact in the art world is evident through her works being housed in major collections, including the Tate in London and the Museum of Modern Art. The Dordrechts Museum also holds her creations. Highlighting her continued relevance, Dumas’ artwork was featured in the 2022 “Women Painting Women” exhibition at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Wort.


Marlene Dumas’s journey from apartheid-era South Africa to the global art stage is a testament to the power of art to transcend boundaries, challenge norms, and touch the human soul. Her contribution to contemporary art is immense, offering a fresh perspective on portraiture, identity, and the human condition. As art continues to evolve, Dumas’s influence will undoubtedly be felt by future generations of artists and art enthusiasts alike.

READ ALSO: Most Famous Contemporary African Artists and their Works

Frequently Asked Questions

Between 1972 and 1975, Marlene Dumas pursued her studies at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, affiliated with the University of Cape Town. Driven by her growing discontent with South Africa’s political climate and apartheid, she relocated to Europe in 1976. Image: “Evil is Banal” (1984) by Marlene Dumas

How influential is Marlene Dumas?

Marlene Dumas, a renowned South African artist, stands out as a pivotal expressive, female figurative painter in the early 2000s alongside peers like Cecily Brown and Jenny Saville. Her politically charged and emotionally resonant artworks, inspired by mass media and art history, are marked by underlying tensions and disquiet. Today, her influential pieces grace global museum collections, showcasing her significant impact on contemporary art.

Where was she born?

Born in 1953 in Cape Town, Marlene Dumas grew up in Kuils River, Western Cape, amidst her father’s vineyard. Experiencing apartheid firsthand in her formative years, she started painting in 1973, channeling her political concerns. Her artworks introspectively delved into her identity as an Afrikaans white woman in South Africa.

Where did she study?

Marlene Dumas studied art at the University of Cape Town (1972-1975) and later at Ateliers ‘63 in Haarlem, now in Amsterdam. She furthered her education with psychology studies at the University of Amsterdam (1979-1980). Now residing in the Netherlands, Dumas is among the nation’s most renowned artists.

Why did she relocate to Europe?

Marlene Dumas, driven by her growing discontent with South Africa’s political climate, relocated to Europe in 1976. Winning a scholarship, she studied at Ateliers 63 in Haarlem, Netherlands for two years. Initially struggling with cultural adjustments, Dumas eventually forged connections within local art communities. After her scholarship in 1978, she pursued postgraduate studies in Psychology at the University of Amsterdam from 1979-80. Embracing Amsterdam as her home, she decided to reside there permanently.

Image: “Magdalena I” (1996) by Marlene Dumas

What themes does she cover?

Marlene Dumas frequently draws from polaroid photographs of close friends and lovers as reference material, as well as sourcing from magazines and explicit content. Her artworks range from intimate portrayals of children to evocative erotic scenes, significantly influencing contemporary art. Dumas believes that her pieces, especially the smaller, intimate ones, are best experienced in their original form. Beyond personal connections, she also paints prominent figures, seamlessly merging the personal with the political in her work.

Anyanwu: The Igbo Sun Deity

What is her style?

Marlene Dumas’s paintings, while resembling portraits, delve deeper into representing emotional states rather than individual identities. Her art deeply engages with profound themes such as sexuality, race, guilt, innocence, and the interplay between violence and tenderness. Rooted in the Romanticism tradition, Dumas employs loose brushstrokes, blending distortion with meticulous detail. She often adopts the wet-on-wet technique, masterfully juxtaposing thin and thick paint layers. Typically working with oil on canvas and ink on paper, her subjects span a diverse range: from newborns to popular culture figures, and from models to strippers, revealing a profound exploration of the human condition in its various facets.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *