Amrita Sher-Gil was born on January 30th, 1913 in Budapest, Hungary. Her father, Sardar Umrao Singh Majithia was an owner of a large amount of land that had been granted to him by the British. Originally, he was a member of the well known Majithia clan that was fighting against the British with the Sikhs, however, he switched sides and helped the British win the war. As a thanks for his contributions he was then given land and became an even wealthier, prominent member of society. His brother, Sir Sunder Singh Majithia, turned a large portion of the land into sugar factories that continued to help the family’s wealth grow (Singh 1975).
Sher-Gil’s mother also came from a wealthy, upper class family. Marie Antoinette Gottesmann was a well known musician and opera singer though she never became a professional. She was known for her love of entertaining and keen eye for decorating. Marie was raised with a very good education (Dalmia 2006) and is the one responsible for the Roman Catholic baptism of both of her daughters, despite Catholicism not being a theology that she practiced directly or insisted on her children practicing. Chrisitianity, specifically Catholicism was something to which both girls were exposed. Amrita attended and was expelled from two Catholic schools as a child (Singh 1975).
The first eight years of Amrita’s life were spent in Hungary until the family moved to India in 1921. The family specifically rooted in Simla where Amrita and her sister began the first parts of their education (Singh 210). Sher-Gil took up a passion for drawing and quickly began an education focused on art and the expansion of her talents. The first teacher she had, Major Whitmarsh, was known to be very conventional and made Amrita draw the same things over and over until she was able to do them as realistically as possible. Major Whitmarsh was dismissed shortly after he started as Sher-Gil strongly disliked listening to him and his teaching style (Singh 211). Her second teacher, Hal Bevan Petman, maintained his position for a considerable time frame and even recommended a formal European style education in art for Amrita, claiming she had a great promise as an artist. In 1924 the family moved again to Florence, Italy, where Sher-Gil was able to study art and go to school at the School of Santa Annunciate. Unfortunately, she was expelled in less than six months as she was caught drawing nude women in class, which was against the strict orthodox rules (Singh 211).
After the school in Florence did not work out, the family moved back to Simla, India, and Amrita began to develop the relationships that would later become so crucial for her work as many of these individuals became her models. The majority of the models from her later and most famous paintings came from the hills surrounding the Simla area, known as Saraya (Singh 211). Of course, Amrita had to continue in a formal education so she was once again enrolled in a Catholic School and was once again expelled thanks to a letter she wrote to her father that was intercepted by one of the teachers. She was writing to explain to him that she was denouncing all religions as she thought they were pointless and stifling, which was not well received by the religious staff at the school (Singh 211).
It was not until Amrita’s uncle, Ervin Baktay, started taking an interest in her talent that her parents considered Paris as an option for a formal art based education. He was able to inspire her to focus on incorporating things from the real world in her paintings and cultivated an interest in autonomy in Sher-Gil and her work. In 1929 the family moved, yet again, to Paris for Amrita to pursue her education there (Dalmia 25).
After first arriving in Paris, Sher-Gil painted at the school Grand Chaumiere under Pierre Vaillent until she was able to get further settled into the area. Once further settled, she began to study at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Art under Lucien Simon. It was here that she was taught to focus on the development of the human form and anatomy, as well as things like line, form and colour (Singh 212). She stayed at Ecole Nationale for almost three years and began to see her first success within the larger art community. In 1932 she was featured in an exhibition and in 1933 she was again featured, but this time won the honor of Associate of the Grand Salon. This made her the youngest individual and first Indian to win this title (Singh 213). This honor gave her the privilege of displaying two paintings at the exhibition every year (Dalmia 31). Paris is the first place we see a shift in her works from naturalism to a focus on anatomy. It has been suggested by critics that due to the influential painters around her, Sher-Gil started to incorporate the styles of painters such as Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh as they quickly became her favourites (Dalmia 30). However, it became increasingly clear to Sher-Gil that she wanted to go back to India and that is where she believed she was destined to become a great painter (Singh 1975).
In 1934 Sher-Gil returned to India and began painting on her family’s land in Simla. Almost immediately after her arrival, a large controversy surrounded her as she declined to accept an award from the Simla Fine Arts Exhibition. She had submitted ten paintings, out of which, five had been chosen by the exhibition to be displayed. One of those five won an award but Sher-Gil felt it was a lesser option compared to the other paintings she had on display and declined the acceptance of the award. In the letter she wrote to the exhibition, she explains that the judges seemed to pick paintings that followed a very traditional view and she did not want to be set into this mold (Singh 214). Sher-Gil’s early works have been described as a literal and romanticised view of India that seems to follow a “tourist lens” of India (Dalmia 61).
Sher-Gil settled back into India and while there she was able to gain traction as a recognized artist. In 1936 she won two prizes for self-portraits in the Delhi Fine Arts Exhibition (Singh 214). This award won her large amounts of publicity that resulted in a market for her to participate in individual commissions and solo exhibitions. In 1937 she won a gold medal in the annual exhibition which only further increased the recognition she was gaining (Dalmia 77). It is at this time that she paints her most famous works, including the South Indian Trilogy, and writes consistently that this was a happy time of her life. Sher-Gil painted upwards of 15 of her most famous paintings at this time while she traveled between Simla, Saraya and Lahore (Dalmia 2006).
When Sher-Gil was asked why she decided to move back to India and out of the European art capital she explained that she wanted to be able to express and illustrate the country that had impacted her so much. She was known for saying that “vibrant art had to be connected to the soil of the land” (Singh 45). Sher-Gil felt that her identity was built in with the people and reality of India, and wanted to bring awareness to the lives of the poor (Dalmia 75). In simple terms, Sher-Gil felt she had only experienced India as an outsider and longed to become an insider through her paintings and the interactions they helped to stimulate with her local models (Tillotson 63).
Sher-Gil’s original painting and drawing style was based on naturalism and keeping things as authentic to the reference as possible. She was taught to draw the same things over again to make sure that they came across as close to the original as possible. However, after she first returned to India there is a shift in her work that starts small. The colours she uses are influenced heavily by the art she was exposed to in Paris and early paintings show bright blues and greens that will eventually transition to reds and browns that develop deeper hues the more Sher-Gil uses them (Dalmia 60). In her mind, she begins to create a new style of Indian painting that is not traditional but still fundamentally Indian in spirit (Dalmia 2006). She is described as creating paintings that are modern in theory but do not follow any of the typical rules required in modern styles. While she uses clear lines and simple colours, there is still this balance between realism of the specific characters but it is done in a lucid stylization (Dalmia 90). This style is a large change from her early works which are based on realism and naturalism. Realism and Naturalism were the styles Sher-Gil was encouraged by her father for learning and she slowly moved away from them as her education expanded (Dalmia 2006).
Sher-Gil faced many criticisms both in life and death, however, some of the most critical views of her work come from Sher-Gil herself. She noticed that over time she began to become detached both in a romantic sense as well as a humane sense (Tillotson 68). Her formalistic style was learned from other painters while she was in Paris, but it was also a conscious choice that she made. This formalism caused many individual critics to be very uncomfortable with the tensions it created in her work, mainly that it caused the feelings that form was more important than any individual details that may have been illustrated (Tillotson 65). Some critics felt that the attachment to the formalist values left a weakening of her connection to the human element in her work, to the point that some commented that it seemed she “painted colours more than subjects.”(Tillotson 65) Prioritizing form over the subject was the main critique that Sher-Gil faced and seemed to become more of an issue over time, especially voiced at some of her final works.
In 1938, Sher-Gil married her first cousin, Dr. Victor Egan. They lived together for a few years in Hungary before moving back to Lahore in 1941. It was here in Lahore where Sher-Gil starts to paint again, completing a few small pieces before starting her final large work that was never completed. In December of 1941, Sher-Gil was struck with a mysterious illness and died two days later. She was 28 years old (Singh 216). Victor planned a Sikh style funeral for her that ended in the cremation of her body on the river Ravi (Dalmia 174). While there is no conclusive idea of the illness that killed her, there are many theories, ranging from basic things such as food poisoning or the straining and rupturing of internal organs due to picking up a heavy painting, to more extreme theories such as the deliberate killing of Sher-Gil at the hands of Victor (Dalmia 179-181).
Sher-Gil strived to express herself in a way that was different from the traditional art style that was prominent in India. In doing so she was able to create a new style and set a course for different art types to break into the artistic community. The largest collection of her works on display is housed at the National Gallery of Modern Art and while it is rare that one of her paintings goes up for sale, when it happens they are very hot items for purchase (Dalmia 207). Sher-Gil has been described as a liberator of Indian art (Singh 216) and continues to be an inspiration for not only artists within India, but also on a global scale as her work continues to captivate new audiences.
Dalmia, Yashodhara (2006) Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life. New Delhi: Penguin.
Singh, N. Iqbal (1975) “Amrita Sher-Gil.” India International Centre Quarterly 3:209-217
Singh, N. Iqbal (1984) Amrita Sher-Gil. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House
Tillotson, G.H.R. (1997) “A Painter of Concern: Critical Writings on Amrita Sher-Gil.” India International Centre Quarterly 4:57-72
To see other female painters of colour:
To see other famous painters from India:
For a book on art and modernity in India:
Worldly affiliations: artistic practice, national identity, and modernism in India, 1930-1990 by Sonal, Khullar (available through the University of Lethbridge Library)
To see a simplified version of all of this with pictures:
To see the website for the museum where most of her works are kept today:
To see her obituary in the New York Times:
To see some of her most popular pieces:
To see all things Amrita:
This article was written by: Tiana Williams (Spring 2020), who is entirely responsible for its content.