Welcome back to the Artists of Color spotlight series. I'm thrilled to share with you one of my favorite painters from the past, Hungaro-Indian artist Amrita Sher-gil. I hope you enjoy reading about her short but fascinating life.
Amrita Sher-gil (b. 1913) is considered to be one of the most important women painters of 20th Century India. Known for her paintings of women, as well as her many affairs with both men and women, she is sometimes known as ‘India’s Frida Kahlo.’
Born to a Punjabi Sikh aristocrat and a Hungarian Jewish opera singer, Sher-gil grew up in Budapest, and began painting at the age of five. Her uncle encouraged her to pursue art, and critiqued her work from an early age. As a child, Sher-gil would paint the household servants and ask them to model for her. In 1921, her parents fell upon hard times financially, and moved the family to Shimla, India. There, Sher-gil received her first formal art lessons. She was expelled from her convent school for declaring herself to be an atheist.
Sher-gil traveled to Florence with her mother in 1924, and was taken by the works of the Italian masters. At the age of sixteen, she moved to Paris to study painting, first at the Grande Chaumiere under Pierre Vaillent and Lucien Simon, and later at the École des Beaux-Arts. She was influenced by modernist European painters of the time, like Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin, and was said to have painted with a conviction and maturity beyond her years. Her 1932 painting Young Girls won her a gold medal and landed her as an Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris. She became the youngest member ever, and the only Asian artist to have received this recognition.
Sher-gil began to feel an intense longing to return to India, and her instructors encouraged her to reconnect with her roots. She returned to Shimla in 1934, and was inspired by the Bengal School of Art and the cave paintings of Ajanta. She toured south India in 1936, and there had a transformative moment in which she found her calling- to paint the lives of Indian people, particularly villagers and women. Her work evolved into a perfect blend of her European training and her love for traditional Indian painting. Her new work was praised by critics, but found few buyers among the aristocrats of India.
Just days before the opening of her first major solo exhibition, Sher-gil became suddenly ill and fell into a coma. She died on December 6, 1941, at age 28. Sher-gil left behind a large body of work, which the Indian government has since declared a national treasure, and her legacy has influenced generations of Indian artists ever since.