While she might not be a popular name, Amrita Sher-Gil is believed to be one of the most influential figures in Indian modern art. She is, to date, the most expensive female painter in Indian history, with her artwork selling for as high as $1,554,019. However, she gained most of her fame and recognition after her death.
Born to a Sikh father and a Hungarian-Jewish mother in 1913, Sher-Gil began painting as a child. Her uncle, the well-known Indologist Ervin Baklay encouraged her work, which led to her being trained by Major Whitmarsh and Beven Pateman in her early childhood. At ten years of age, she briefly moved to Florence with her mother and studied the Italian masters. At sixteen, she studied at Académie de la Grande Chaumière and École des Beaux-Arts in France under famous tutors such as Pierre Vaillent and Lucien Simon.
It was in Paris that Amrita gained attention with her painting Young Girls, which won her an election as Associate of the Grand Salon– making her the youngest person as well as the only Asian to ever do so.
Sher-Gil did not stay in Europe for long. She returned to India in 1934 and became interested in India’s traditional art styles. She traveled across the country and became fascinated by Mughal and Pahari paintings, and by the art in the Ajanta caves in particular. Over the following years nearly all the subjects of her paintings were Indians, especially the rural poor. Her paintings used bright colours, and reflected the empathy and love she had for her subjects and the country she lived in. She is believed to have said: “I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque…. India belongs only to me”.
Combining her education in European art with her love for India’s traditional painting styles, Sher-Gil helped usher in India’s age of modern art. Inspite of this, her work was not popular during the time. For instance, the Maharaja of Mysore chose Ravi Varma’s work over Sher-Gil’s.
Sher-Gil nevertheless led a rather adventurous life for a woman of her time. Her rebellious nature was evident from a young age when she was expelled from her school for announcing that she was an atheist. During her adult life, she was known to have had affairs with both women and men, even after marrying her Hungarian first cousin Dr. Victor Egan. Although her family had close ties to the British Raj, Amrita was a supporter of the Congress, and of Gandhi’s philosophies. She was good friends with Jawaharlal Nehru, and when asked why she never painted him, is believed to have said he was “too handsome”.
Tragically, Sher-Gil’s intriguing life was cut short at the age of 28 when she slipped into a coma after an unknown illness and passed away. In a dramatic twist, her mother accused Amrita’s husband Victor Egan of killing her but this was never proved as Egan was imprisoned shortly after, when Britain declared war on Hungary.
Amrita Sher-Gil gained recognition only towards the end of the 20th century. Her work has influenced many people from artists like Arpita Singh to writers like Salman Rushdie. Her art was declared as National Art Treasures, and most of them can be viewed at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.
You can view more of her art here.