The Story And Artworks Of Hungarian Artist Amrita Sher Gil Who Loved India.

Updated: Nov 17


Amrita Sher Gil and Sumair Portrait on right
Amrita Sher Gil and Sumair Portrait on right Ⓒ Amrita Sher-Gil

Women painters like Amrita Sher Gil are immediately thought of when discussing the most emblematic Indian female artist. In her brief but productive career as a painter, she left behind a substantial body of work that continues to inspire us today. She is known as one of the greatest avant-garde woman artists of the early 20th century, a pioneer in modern Indian art, and Frida Kahlo of India. Apart from this fact, it is known that she was an atheist. Amrita Sher Gil paintings are immediately recognizable when you walk into her museum due to their vivid colours and boldness. Born in Hungary on 30 January 1913, she was the daughter of a Sikh aristocrat, a scholar in Persian and Sanskrit, Umrao Singh, and an affluent bourgeois family Hungarian-Jewish opera singer, Marie Antoniette Gottesmann. You might be thinking, despite being born in Hungary, how come she became the most provincial and famous artist in India? It is worth reading this article in this case.


A colour picture of Amrita Sher Gil While Smiling
Amrita Sher-Gil photographed while smiling

As we read through her life journal, we got inspired by her travels and way of life. So we thought to introduce it here. Amrita Sher Gil started learning the art of painting when she was only eight years old, after becoming enamoured with the medium at a young age. When she was 19, her oil painting Young Girls (1932) garnered widespread recognition. While she spent her childhood in Budapest, she returned to India in 1921. Ervin Bakhtay, whom she was niece, took notice of her talent for paintings, and so he inspired her to draw. Criticizing her work, he helped her build an academic foundation. She used to paint the servants in her house when she was a child and had them as models for her. It was these memories that led her to return to India. When she moved to India with her family in 1921, she learned piano and took concerts in Shimla alongside acting in plays at Shimla's Gaiety Theatre at Mall Road with her sister Indira. You might be amazed that she was even dismissed from a convent school since she declared herself an Atheist. These were the days of her early life that is complex to understand her personally for us.


A black and white picture of Indian female artist giving a pose
A picture of Amrita Sher-Gil while giving a pose

Career, Later Life And Controversies.


Amrita Shergill Timeline, Crucial Events (1913 To 1941)
Amrita Shergill Timeline, Crucial Events

1923- She was in the period when her mother, Marie, knew an Italian sculptor. As a result, Marie decided to bring her to Italy with him and enrolled her in school. Even so, Amrita's heart belonged to India. That is why she returned to India in 1924.


When she was 16, Amrita Sher Gil sailed to Europe with her mother and trained as a painter in Paris, first at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and then at the École des Beaux-Arts.


Artist name

Amrita Sher-Gil

Date of birth

30 January 1913

Date of death

5 December 1941

Period

Modern Indian Period

Medium

Oil painting


French painters like Paul Cézanne and Gauguin were her inspirations.

In addition to the influence of her teacher Lucien Simon, she had friends and lovers, including Tazlitsky.


Her paintings in Paris are said to be marked by a maturity and conviction unusual for a 16-year-old.


In her early 1930s, she practised a lot more Bohemian circles in Paris. She achieved recognition with her first oil painting, Young Girls, in 1932, earning accolades and even becoming the youngest Asian Associate of the Grand Salon of Paris. A nagging desire to return to India began to haunt Amrita Sher Gil in 1933, and at the end of 1934, she returned to India. In 1936, she left herself to travel, finding roots in India. The Pahari and Mughal paintings and the cave paintings of Ajanta greatly inspired her.


A picture of Amrita Sher-Gil during her times at École des Beaux-Arts
A picture of Amrita Sher-Gil (On the Ultimate Right facing towards the camera) during her times at École des Beaux-Arts


In 1937, when she visited South India, she followed her visit to Indian classical art and produced paintings Bride's Toilet, Brahmacharis, and South Indian Villagers Going to Market. It seems that these paintings reveal the artist's passion for colour depicting poverty and despair.


In Saraya, Amrita Sher Gil wrote to a friend,

"I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque... India belongs only to me."

Through this fact, we understand that she was one of the famous Indian female artist who loved Mother India as much as she loved her artwork.


When she was 25, she married Dr Viktor Egan, with whom she moved to Saraya, Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. During this time, she met Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, when the Bengal renaissance was at its peak. Her paintings depict the use of Chiaroscuro and the bright colours used by Abanindranath. During her stay at Saraya, Amrita Sher Gil painted the Village Scene, In the Ladies' Enclosure, and Siesta, which all depict the leisurely rhythms of rural Indian life. Her paintings of Indian villagers and women reflect their situation as poor, distressed, and deprived. Her inspirations include Gandhi's philosophy as well as his lifestyle.


Amrita Shergill with her husband Dr Victor Egan
Amrita Shergill with her husband Dr Victor Egan, 1938 | Source: Sher-Gil Family Archive

In October 1940, Nehru visited Saraya in Gorakhpur and was captivated by her beauty and talent. At one point, Congress considered using her paintings in its propaganda to rebuild villages.


Amrita Shergill with Jawaharlal Nehru | Unknown Author
Amrita Shergill with Jawaharlal Nehru

She was known for her too many love affairs with men and women. Nonetheless, despite her complex personality, she became the most recognizable Indian female artist.


Indian Artist Amrita Sher-Gil Photographed while wearing a gown
Amrita Sher-Gil wearing a gown

Like a meteor, Amrita Sher Gil blazed through Indian art history. Among Indian modern artists, her place is undoubtedly preeminent. It's not surprising that her aesthetic sensibility has elements of Europe and India.


Life was Sher-Gil's passion, drinking what it had to offer down to the last drop. Even so, she still carried an underlying melancholy that manifested itself in the pensive faces of her subjects and their sombre poses.


Her paintings drew attention, and the life she led through her terms is true indeed.


A picture of Amrita Sher-Gil while live Portraying Yusuf Ali Khan
Amrita Sher-Gil Portraying Yusuf Ali Khan

Amrita Sher-Gil Exhibition view of the show - Difficult Loves
Amrita Sher-Gil Exhibition view of the show - Difficult Loves Ⓒ Google


Amrita Sher Gil - Inspirations and Legacy.

On 31.01.2013, the National Gallery of Modern Art released “Special Cover,” by the Department of the post, the release of two Portfolios on Amrita Sher Gil on the occasion of her birthday. In addition to being a featured personality, a film directed by Navina Sundaram followed.


Amrita Sher-Gil Cultural Center is an art centre dedicated to Indian culture in Budapest.


Amrita Sher-Gil's 100th birthday was declared the International Year of Amrita Sher Gil by UNESCO in 2013.


In Amrita Chowdhury's contemporary novel Faking It, Sher-Gil's work is a central theme.


In 2018, The New York Times published a belated obituary for her.


Amrita Sher-Gil with models for Artwork Young Girls 1932
Amrita Sher-Gil (In Left) with models for Young Girls 1932

Jimmy Sher-Gil, the Mohabbatein star, is related to her directly. It is said that Amrita Shergill was his great paternal aunt. Moving forward from her epic life journey, we will be displaying some of the awe-inspiring paintings. You will be fascinated by the stories they hold.


Paintings By Amrita Sher Gil.


A picture of Amrita Sher-Gil with some of her paintings
A picture of Amrita Sher-Gil with some of her paintings

1. Group of Three Girls.


Among Amrita Sher Gil paintings, this piece holds a special place in our hearts. This is originally from the year 1935. It also won a gold medal from the Bombay Art Society. Gaugin's influence on the flattening of figures is notable. From this point on, her use of brilliant red becomes more evident. Three women are sitting in a chair pose. Alongside, the vivid colors of saffron, red, and green fill the whole painting with absolute beauty. The dark-skinned color, restless eyes looking down, perfect nose, and weighty lower lips are some other traits of the women here. It somehow depicts the pain in the rural women's life where they are submissive to patriarchal society. Despite having a story of pain, the painting modestly displays joy. It seems Amrita Sher Gil has always felt emotions from her surrounding.


Group of Three Girls Painting By Amrita Sher-Gil 1935
Group of Three Girls Painting By Amrita Sher-Gil 1935 Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art


2. Sumair.


This artwork depicts the artist's cousin Sumair. In Amrita Sher Gil gallery of portraits, plenty of them are of her relatives and friends. In this painting, she has depicted Sumair wearing a clean bun while dressed up in a floral saree and drop earrings. The big round eyes, blushed cheeks, and red lipstick adds character to her appearance. In her right hand, she is holding flowers and the expressions are similar to the women in the painting Group Of Three Girls. The liveliness of the painting can be seen through contrasting colors of red and green.


Sumair Portrait by Amrita Sher-Gil
Sumair Portrait by Amrita Sher-Gil Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art

3. Hungarian Gypsy Girl.


The artist made this painting in 1932 while vacationing in a Hungarian village. It was titled Hungarian Gypsy Girl. A tanned girl lying in the garden with brown hair and tanned hands is a classic example of the artist's style. The use of florals is also worth noticing in this artwork. On the lady's face, you can see her relaxed state. She has depicted the subject with effervescence and charm with a thick layer of pigments. The artist Amrita Sher Gil tends to depict his subjects with sharp features, thick lips, and flushed cheeks.


Hungarian Gypsy Girl painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1932
Hungarian Gypsy Girl painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1932 Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art


4. Ancient Story Teller.


This artwork, painted by Amrita Sher Gil with oil paints in 1940, depicts a combination of architecture and figures. The artist captured the essence of village life in this painting. Undoubtedly, Amrita used to portray things in her way. Maybe this is why she reflected well even amid pain in her artworks. Despite the thick pigment layer of the background, the colors are well highlighted. This work shows a family, perhaps a peasant family, with a woman preparing food. The man with his old white beard sits here telling fairy tales to the children. The two ladies gossiping behind them are delineating two different scenes. Behind the white monuments, even the tree leaves are seen with naked eyes. This kind of clarity in any painting is fascinating.


Ancient Story Teller painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1940
Ancient Story Teller painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1940 Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art

5. Hill Scene.


Painted in 1938, Amrita Sher Gil drew her from her last visit to Hungary. Earlier, she used to draw substantial paintings, but from this painting, it is visible that she demarcated the subject as well. There are bold colors in this painting. The background of this piece is beautifully emphasized and highlights the artist's art. In contrast to past times, it portrays some women walking together. Possibly, they are returning from somewhere through the woods. The red color is somehow missing in the following artwork. According to the clothing worn by women in the painting, it was created during a period when Amrita was influenced by traditional Indian culture. The painting even differentiates leaves or branches of trees from the rest.


Hill Scene painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1938
Hill Scene painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1938 Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art


6. Denise Proutaux.


We have previously mentioned the artist's habit of painting portraits of her close friends and family members. The painting depicts Denise Proutaux, a friend of the artist. She has painted her more than once. In this artwork, she is seen sitting with her side profile. Her perfect brown hair is tied in a bun. She is wearing the old classic black style dress with a hat and gloves. The pink blush cheeks, sharp eyebrows, red lipstick are the eye-catching elements of her look.


Denise Proutaux painting by Amrita Sher-Gil
Denise Proutaux painting by Amrita Sher-Gil Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art

7. Hungarian Village Market.


Indologist and historian Gyula Wojtilla credits this painting as "The Hungarian Market Scene," painted in 1938. However, in the exhibition catalog of Amrita Sher Gil: An Indian artist family of the twentieth century, its tentative year is 1939. It is visible that the painter has a style of forming painting on a dark color thick pigment layer. She has infused dark colors as a background and contrasted that with white buildings and brown roofs. The market is crowded with people wearing the same black dress form and holding their wooden tongs for support. Its crowd is joyous and turbulent, and so is the painting.


Hungarian Village Market painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1940
Hungarian Village Market painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1940 Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art


8. Haldi Grinders.


The artist painted this idyllic rural scene in 1940. During the last few years of her life, her paintings are pervaded by vibrant, saturated colors. Several scholars have commented on how the use of color in these paintings is influenced by the Basholi tradition and other miniature traditions. This painting depicts three women with yellow, white, and red saris against a natural background in the middle of the picture plane. Behind the tree, a representation of a woman appears to be resting in black and brown, also attracting the viewer's attention. With bright colors on the dress as well as a blurry brown background and massive trees, the viewer is put under immense stress.

Haldi Grinders painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1940
Haldi Grinders painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1940 Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art

9. Woman On Charpai.


The work of art here, painted in 1940, exemplifies passive feminist imagery. By incorporating domestic scenes of women's intricacies in the most comfortable way, Amrita Sher Gil revolutionized the paintings that were considered feminine. There is a charpai covered in a white sheet with a lady sleeping on it in a more comfortable way than the standard woman's posture. A second woman uses a hand fan. The room depicts the way of living at earlier times with an earthen pot (Matka) in each room for cold water. Each of the domestic scenes depicted by the artist carries the modeling of the feminine world.


Woman On Charpai painting by Amrita Sher Gil 1940
Woman On Charpai painting by Amrita Sher Gil 1940 Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art


10. Open Air Painters.


This exquisite depiction from the sanctuary of Amrita Sher Gil’s artworks is yet another imprint of Indian modern art. During the early 30s of the 20th century, the influence of both academic realism and post-impressionism guided her to depict three young painters working in the alfresco setting point. One observes a drop in realism when one looks closer at the face of the female artist who is deeply engaged in her work while the teen girl is gazing at another artist near the tree. The scene adapts to the slightest details without red pigments, which notes the early career of the artist.


Open Air Painters painting by Amrita Sher-Gil
Open Air Painters painting by Amrita Sher-Gil Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art

11. Woman Holding Fan.


This painting is from the early careers of the artist where the pigments of red are missing. It depicts two women wearing various colors. As contrasted with the white wall behind the first lady dressed in green, her dark skin and lethargic expressions are highlighted. We think that she is holding a hand fan. The other woman holding the broom has covered her head with her off-white saree. This artwork is a clear representation of the feminine world.


Woman Holding Fan painting by Amrita Sher-Gil
Woman Holding Fan painting by Amrita Sher-Gil Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art


12. Brahmacharis.


This painting is among the trilogy of South Indian Art, painted in 1940/41. Through Amrita Sher Gil travels through South India and to the rock-cut caves of Ajanta and Ellora, she was captivated by the Indian miniature traditions. Her visual language thus transformed dramatically. A palette saturated with reds, ochres, browns, yellows, and greens, and her figuration expressed a new visual reality. The contrast between the brick red background and the yellow floor in this painting is striking. There are four young boys and a child in it. They are wearing white-colored dhoti and janeu (part of Brahmanical tradition). The tilak and the bun tied above the head of the young center boy is the major attraction of the painting. In general, the south Indian art essence has deeply infused the artwork with sensation.


Brahmacharis painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1940-41
Brahmacharis painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1940-41 Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art

13. Self Portrait as a Tahitian.


As in "Self-Portrait as Tahitian," the female figure stands against an ominous shadow, which appears to be male. The shadows indicate the dominating influence of both painters that Amrita Sher Gil is evoking. In her artworks, the woman is not presented to a man as an object of sexual desire. The sadness on the woman's face is maybe because of misery, dominance by a patriarchal society, and unhealthy relationships. In the background of the woman, she has drawn some Japanese elements. Through her paintings, Sher-Gil primarily attempted to portray the actual truth of the female experience. Here, we see a nude female lying in repose. The brown body black hair in a fussy ponytail portrays the simplicity of the subject. Amrita Sher Gil was perfectly an example of feminist nude artist.


Self Portrait As A Tahitian painting by  Amrita Sher Gil
Self Portrait As A Tahitian painting by Amrita Sher Gil Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art


14. Young Girls.


An award-winning painting from 1932 was accepted into the Grand Salon in 1933 and won associate membership. A painting depicts a story between two girls in which there is numerous gossip. The lady sitting on a white chair with green cushions, wearing a fairy white dress with navy blue accents, draws attention to the entire painting. The long blonde hair covering her face in a mess completes the look. Another woman holds a plate of fruit and wears a green dress with red sleeves. The blend of brown skin and white skin shows the fusion of two different places.


Young Girls painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1932
Young Girls painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1932 Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art

15. Self Portrait (7).


To be an artist, you must perceive beauty through character. Her work exemplified that correctly. Here, the artist has self-portraiture her as happy. There are similarities to the previous works, such as the long black hair, blushing cheeks, and red lips. Another element of this seductive and exuberant mood depiction involves wrapping herself in a cloth and wearing a necklace and bangles. Amrita Sher Gil had proven us the example of beauty with talent through this artwork.


Self Portrait (7) painting by Amrita Sher-Gil
Self Portrait (7) painting by Amrita Sher-Gil Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art


16. The Young Man With Apples.


Amrita Sher Gil painted most of her friends, family, and fellow students between 1930 and 1932. Similarly, this portrait showcases one of her known. Observe the man wearing a white shirt and brown pants, which used to be a common outfit during that time. He is holding apples in despair. Likewise, we recognize that life's fruitful journey tends to be littered with adversity.


The Young Man With Apples painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1930-1932
The Young Man With Apples painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1930-1932 Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art

17. The Merry Cemetery.


The ultimatum reality of our lives is truthfully the same. Even though we travel along different paths, we are treated similarly at death. It is a subject that most people fear. Amrita Sher Gil painted this village scene in 1939 when she finally returned to India. The painting depicts the eerie silence of a cemetery with the lost ones laying peacefully and not a single attendant to remember their givings. It reminds us of the book, Who Will Cry When You Die? By Robin Sharma. We all need to live a life that counts as a blessing to the people around us.


The Merry Cemetery painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1939
The Merry Cemetery painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1939 Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art


18. Two Women.


Originally painted in 1936, this piece is based on inspiration from drawing rural scenery. The artist has painted two-woman here. One of them, wearing green, covering her head is seen sitting with knees to chest. The brown-skin restless expressions are again shown here through the artist. She has applied a Sindoor to the particularly striking skin. This tells that Amrita Sher Gil has always respected the customs and traditions of India. On the other hand, the lady standing wore white, with a dull expression, gazing at the earth. Maybe the sufferings and pain that females used to witness that time are well understood by the artist. The contrasting colors are again making the painting a masterpiece.


Two Women painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1936
Two Women painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1936 Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art

19. Dressing Table.


This painting was made in 1931 by the artist. A dressing table with a perfume bottle, beaded necklace, and white flowers is painted here by her. The dark colors, however, contrasting white flowers make this art eye-catching.


Dressing Table painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1931
Dressing Table painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1931 Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art


20. Notre Dame.


The evening walks of Notre Dame of Paris are none less than a dream come true. Amrita Sher Gil painted this when she was a student in Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It's a rich art form that features deep, dark pigments. Note the lack of red saturation in this piece. She painted this early in her career when bright colors were not her style.


Notre Dama painting by Amrita Sher-Gil
Notre Dama painting by Amrita Sher-Gil Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art

21. Winter.


In 1939, a year after returning to India, she painted the stark winter landscape of Hungary in monochrome. A portion of the painting has been used by her nephew, the artist Vivan Sumdaram, in one of his photomontages about her life. The white blanket that the earth has worn here with few trees represented by black is soothing to watch. Toward the end, the artist draws a hut that speaks of living even in colder places. A place like that is irresistible when you are in the mood for it. There is a definite overlap of trees. In the bark of trees, we see parallel lines which convince us to notice the pattern again.


Winter painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1939
Winter painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1939 Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art


22. Red Verandah.


During the years before the Quit India Movement, Amrita Sher Gil was very active with the depictions of reality. This artwork is yet another piece of evidence for the same. Named by the critic Geeta Kapur, Red Verandah is a curious representation of a group with different emotions and states. When looking precisely, we can see that one of the ladies is in the mood of having a conversation while the one facing her is sitting with sad emotions on her face. A lady in despair sits near her, and a child is hugging the woman next to her. A group of people is seated near a charpai (Khaat), which is popular in Indian villages. We suppose the name is derived from the red pillars that are being shown beside this group. The different elements of emotions and expressions are the laying ground of this artwork and something that the artist is recognized for.


Red Verandah painting by Amrita Sher-Gil
Red Verandah painting by Amrita Sher-Gil Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art

23. Department Store.


Possibly done in the 1930s, the artist has drawn a whole market here. A yellow pillar, surrounded by dummies, is depicted in the painting. The mannequins are dressed in yellow and are posing in various ways. Some of the women are shopping here. They wear authentic classic dresses. A dwarf man is also depicted here, with a woman looking at the dummy dress. The grand natural scenery of the crowd is visible here through the artist's work.


Department Store painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1930s
Department Store painting by Amrita Sher-Gil 1930s Ⓒ National Gallery Of Modern Art


24. Mother India.


After the artist returned to India in 1934 from Paris, she started capturing the unfiltered domestic lives of the rural economy. She often portrays her subject in a melancholy and despairing manner, with large and sad eyes. In this