A Pioneer of Modern Indian Art ~ You Should Know Amrita Sher-Gil!

Her sensitive paintings portray the lives of women, in a style similar to Gauguin.

Amrita Sher-Gil
Amrita Sher-Gil Self Portrait

Amrita Sher-Gil

Amrita Sher-Gil, Self-portrait (Untitled), 1931, oil on canvas, private collection

Amrita Sher-Gil was one of the most influential Indian women artists in history.

Her work portrays the lives of women.

She’s known as a pioneer of modern Indian art.


Amrita Sher-Gil

Amrita Sher-Gil, Self-portrait, 1930, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi

Influenced by European Art

Sher-Gil’s won her a gold medal at the Grand Salon in Paris early career with Young Girls from 1932. She was the first first Indian artist to be accepted as a member of Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.

Oil painting on canvas of two women sitting on chairs close to each other inside a room. Both women are clad in fine dresses. A table with a few bowls and a vase of flowers is next to one of the women.

Amrita Sher-Gil, Young Girls, 1932, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi

“I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque…. India belongs only to me”

In the 1930s she felt a great longing to return to her Indian roots. She once wrote: “I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque…. India belongs only to me”.

Exploring Indian Traditions

She embarked on a quest to explore Indian art traditions that would last for the rest of her life. In 1934, she started traveling to India more and more, and eventually moved there permanently in 1941. Throughout this time, her style was rapidly evolving as she consciously moved towards more Indian art influences.

Amrita Sher-Gil

Amrita Sher-Gil, Bride’s Toilet, 1937, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi

“to paint the silent images of infinite submission and patience”

Indian Women Genre

Her subject matters focused on Indian women, and people living in poverty. She once described her artistic mission: “to interpret the lives of Indians and particularly of the poor Indians pictorially, to paint the silent images of infinite submission and patience, to depict the angular brown bodies, strangely beautiful in their ugliness, to reproduce on canvas the impression their sad eyes created on me”.

Her strong colours, expressive emotions, and powerful figures—remain her legacy, with the Indian government having declared her works to be National Art Treasures.

Give me the gossip!
Monochrome photograph of a woman with light brown skin and dark hair look straight at the viewer. Her hair is partly covered by an ornate headscarf and her hand, held up to her chest, is covered with golden bangles.

Photograph of Amrita Sher-Gil, year unknown

Sher-Gil married her Hungarian first cousin, Dr. Victor Egan, when she was 25, and they then moved to India together. It seems she was engaged to Egan in 1931, but then had an affair with Yusuf Ali Khan, broke off her engagement to Egan and got engaged to Khan, but then broke that off as well. There were rumors that at the time she was having an affair with Egan.

She might also have struggled with same-sex desires, once writing “I thought I would start a relationship with a woman when the opportunity arises.” There were rumours about the potentially sexual/romantic nature of her relationship with painter Marie Louise Chassany, to the point where her mother actually confronted her about it, but she denied this in a letter to her mother. She also had a sexual relationship with pianist Edith Lang (apparently Chassany once walked in on them, according to Victor Egan).

In terms of her political views, even though her family had close ties to the British Raj, she was sympathetic to the Indian National Congress, a political party that was led by Mahatma Gandhi at the time and which became the leader of the Indian independence movement.

Sher-Gil sadly died incredibly young, at just 28 years of age. She became very ill and slipped into a coma, dying around midnight, on 6 December 1941. We still don’t know why exactly she died, but a failed abortion is one of the theories. Her mother actually accused Egan of murdering her. Her last work was left unfinished by her just prior to her death in December 1941 and she left behind a large amount of works (and, of course, a lasting legacy).

Give me a quick selection of her art!
Oil painting on canvas of three women sitting next to each other. They each have brown skin and dark hair, which is partly covered by headscarves. They are facing the same direction, but their gazes are cast down, not looking at each other.

Amrita Sher-Gil, Group of Three Girls, 1935, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi

Group of Three Girls, 1935

Sher-Gil painted a lot of women, and specifically Indian women. The above painting is a beautiful example of that. What’s noteworthy about this one is that the women are looking a bit downcast and melancholy. This was probably a choice she made because she wanted to reflect the hard lives of poor women in India, and it was also something rarely seen in other portrayals of Indian women in the 1930s, which usually showed them to be happy and obedient.

Amrita Sher-Gil

Amrita Sher-Gil, Self Portrait as Tahitian, 1934, oil on canvas, Collection of Navina and Vivan Sundaram

Self Portrait as Tahitian, 1934
The above is one of my personal favourites as it draws on the Paul Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women. I’ve written before about the problematic, exoticising aspects of these paintings, and to me this feels like someone who might have been the object of a fetishising male gaze taking control of that gaze and choosing how to portray herself. Compared to Gauguin’s paintings, her expression is a lot more somber and severe.

Amrita Sher-Gil

Amrita Sher-Gil, Two Girls, 1939, oil on canvas, collection of Vivan Sundaram, New Delhi

Two Girls, 1939
As I mentioned previously, there is a possibility that Sher-Gil was attracted to women, and there were plenty of rumours about her strong bond with painter Marie Louise Chassany. Some art critics, including her nephew Vivan Sundaram, believed that the above piece was a representation of their relationship and longing for each other.

Where can I go if I want more information?
  • If you’re in India, much of her work is in the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.
  • Earlier this year (2018), many decades after her death, Sher-Gil finally got an obituary in the New York Times.
  • Indian contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram—who, as I mentioned above, is the nephew of Amrita Sher-Gil—has written books about her life. He also created a work called Re-take of ‘Amrita’, a series of digital photomontages based on archival photographs from the Sher-Gil family. He speaks about her life here on TateShots.
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