Amrita Sher-Gil (30 January 1913 – 5 December 1941) was an eminent Hungarian-Indian painter. She has been called "one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th century" and a "pioneer" in modern Indian art. Drawn to painting from an early age, Sher-Gil started getting formal lessons in the art, at the age of eight. She first gained recognition at the age of 19, for her oil painting titled Young Girls (1932). Sher-Gil traveled throughout her life to various countries including Turkey, France, and India, deriving heavily from pre-colonial Indian art styles and its current culture. Sher-Gil is considered an important painter of 20th-century India, whose legacy stands on a level with that of the pioneers from the Bengal Renaissance. She was also an avid reader and pianist. Sher-Gil's paintings are among the most expensive by Indian women painters today, although few acknowledged her work when she was alive.
1932–1936: Early career, European and Western styles
Young Girls, 1932, oil on canvas, 133×164 cm, National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi
Sher-Gil's early paintings display a significant influence of the Western modes of painting, more specifically, the post-impressionism style. She practiced a lot in the Bohemian circles of Paris in the early 1930s. Her 1932 oil painting, Young Girls, came as a breakthrough for her; the work won her accolades, including a gold medal and election as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933. She was the youngest ever member, and the only Asian to have received this recognition. Her work during this time includes a number of self-portraits, as well as life in Paris, nude studies, still, life studies, and portraits of friends and fellow students, The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi describes the self-portraits she made while in Paris as "the artist in her many moods – somber, pensive, and joyous – while revealing a narcissistic streak in her personality." Sleep, 1932, oil on canvas 112.5 x 79 cm, National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi When she was in Paris, one of her professors often said that judging by the richness of her coloring Sher-Gil was not in her element in the west and that her artistic personality would find its true atmosphere in the east. In 1933, Sher-Gil "began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India feeling in some strange way that there lay my destiny as a painter." Sher-Gill returned to India at the end of 1934. In May 1935, Sher-Gil met the English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, then working as Assistant Editor and leader writer for The Calcutta Statesman. Both Muggeridge and Sher-Gil stayed at the family home at Summer Hill, Shimla and a short intense affair took place during which she painted a casual portrait of her new lover, the painting now with the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. By September 1935 Amrita saw Muggeridge off as he traveled back to England for new employment. She left herself for travel in 1936 at the behest of an art collector and critic, Karl Khandalavala, who encouraged her to pursue her passion for discovering her Indian roots. In India, she began a quest for the rediscovery of the traditions of Indian art which was to continue till her death. She was greatly impressed and influenced by the Mughal and Pahari schools of painting and the cave paintings at Ajanta. South Indian Villagers Going to Market, 1937.
1937–1941: Later career, the influence of Indian art
Later in 1937, she toured South India and produced her South Indian trilogy of paintings Bride's Toilet, Brahmacharis, and South Indian Villagers Going to Market following her visit to the Ajanta Caves when she made a conscious attempt to return to classical Indian art. These paintings reveal her passionate sense of color and an equally passionate empathy for her Indian subjects, who are often depicted in their poverty and despair. By now the transformation in her work was complete and she had found her 'artistic mission' which was, according to her, to express the life of Indian people through her canvas. While in Saraya Sher-Gil wrote to a friend thus: "I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque... India belongs only to me". Her stay in India marks the beginning of a new phase in her artistic development, one that was distinct from the European phase of the interwar years when her work showed an engagement with the works of Hungarian painters, especially the Nagybanya school of painting.
Sher-Gil married her Hungarian first cousin, Dr. Victor Egan when she was 25.Dr. Egan had helped Sher-Gil obtain abortions on at least two occasions prior to their marriage. She moved with him to India to stay at her paternal family's home in Saraya, Sardar Nagar, Chauri Chaura in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. Thus began her second phase of painting which equals in its impact on Indian art with the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy of the Bengal school of art. The 'Calcutta Group' of artists, which transformed the Indian art scene, was to start only in 1943, and the 'Progressive Artist's Group', with Francis Newton Souza, Ara, Bakre, Gade, M. F. Husain and S. H. Raza among its founders, lay further ahead in 1948. Amrita's art was strongly influenced by the paintings of the two Tagores, Rabindranath and Abanindranath who were the pioneers of the Bengal School of painting. Her portraits of women resemble works by Rabindranath while the use of 'chiaroscuro' and bright colors reflect the influence of Abanindranath.
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