Amrita Sher-Gil: The First Female Artist of Modern India

Amrita Sher-Gil: Self Portrait
She came. She painted. She conquered. And then She left.

The aesthetes call her Frida Kahlo of India or First woman painter of modern Indian art movement but if you have really looked at her paintings for once, you might say, she is not Frida or a woman painter, she is just herself.

She is Amrita Sher-Gil.

Hungarian Village Church/1931
Amrita is not a product of agitation against British rule like greats of Bengal Renaissance Art Movement.

On contrary, she belonged to a well-to-do aristocratic family with high British connections. Her father, Sardar Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, was an Indian aristocrat and a well-known Sanskrit and Persian literature scholar. Her mother, Marie Antoinette, was a Hungarian-Jewish opera artist.
amrita sher-gil child bride
Child Bride/1936
Her uncle, a popular Indologist, Ervin Baktay, made a huge contribution in the introduction of Indian art and culture to Europe. He was also one of her earliest masters and critiques. He guided her through her very first brush stroke and laid the foundation of her majestic art world.

amrita sher-gil ancient story tellers
Ancient Storytellers/1940
He instructed her how to use house servants as models. Interestingly, the memories of these models lead her return to India in the early 1920s.

Though she started painting at the age of five but it was not until she was eight, she received any formal training. Her first teacher was Major Whitmarsh.

amrita sher-gil paintings
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In 1924, she had a brief stay in Italy, where she was enrolled in Santa Annunziata, an art school of Florence. It is where she acquainted with Italian art.

Self Portrait As Tahitian Girl/1934
In 1929, at the age of sixteen, she sailed with her mother to Paris, to get trained as a painter. She was first enrolled in Grande Chaumiere under Pierre Valliant and Lucien Simon and later at Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

Young Girls/1932
In 1933, her first major work, Young Girls led her selection as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris, which also made her, youngest and only Asian person to achieve the recognition.

In 1934, she returned to India. Some might say, she came back to find her lost inspiration but in actuality, she came to India to change everything in the contemporary art world. In her own words, “Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, and many others, India belongs only to me.”

South Indian Villagers Going To Market/1937
She stayed at her ancestral home before embarking on a journey to discover India in 1936. At the behest of young art critic Karl Khandalavala, she continued her journey to explore the different shades of India.

Bride’s Toilet/1937
In 1937, she experienced southern India. It is where she painted her famous South Indian trilogy of Bride’s Toilet, Brahamacharis and South Indian Villagers Going to Market.

Her South Indian experience followed by the visits to Ajanta caves, influenced her so much, that she wanted to revive Indian classic art. This transformation is clearly seen in her later works, as she wanted to show the real side of India, the Passionate India, not poverty struck and sadistic India depicted by the European artist.

Three Girls/1935
Amrita married her maternal cousin, Dr. Victor Egan in 1938 and moved to India for very last time. They stayed at her paternal home in Saraya in Gorakhpur.

Tribal Women
The introduction to Bengal Art movement influenced her so much, especially the art of Tagore’s, she developed the technique as her own. The influence of Rabindranath can be seen in her portrayals of women, and Aban in her use of bright colors.

Woman At Bath
It was during her stay at Saraya, she painted some of her famous paintings such as Village Scene, In the Ladies’ Enclosure, and Siesta, which was in line with her ideology of colorful and ambiguous India.

In September 1941, she along with her husband moved to Lahore, the epicenter of contemporary art in undivided India.

Two Women
She was quite a rebel and notorious for her affairs with both men and women. One of her most recognized work, Two Women is said to be the portrayal of her and her lover Marie Louise.

Torso by Amrita Sher-Gil
In 6th December 1941, before her first major solo exhibition, she fell into serious illness and slipped into the coma. Later, she left the world around midnight.

Sleeping Woman/1933
She influenced a generation of Indian artists, from Syed Haider Raza to Arpita Singh and her portrayal of women have changed the way everyone sees the woman as the whole, especially in India.
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