The queen of oil paintings, Amrita Sher-Gil

Amrita Sher-Gil was born on January 30, 1913,  Budapest, Hungary, was an Indian painter who was one of the pioneers of the modern movement in Indian art. She has been called “one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th century” and a “pioneer” in modern Indian art. Drawn to painting at a young age, Sher-Gil started getting formal lessons in the art, at the age of eight. Sher-Gil first gained recognition at the age of 19, for her oil painting entitled Young Girls in 1932.

Sher-Gil was born of an Indian father and a Hungarian mother. She had a precocious talent for painting that was noticed early, and she was encouraged in her pursuit by her uncle, Ervin Baktay, an Indologist and a former painter himself. During her childhood she lived at different times in both India and Europe. At 16 she entered the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where she was influenced by the work of Paul Cézanne, Amedeo Modigliani, and Paul Gauguin. In 1934 she left Paris, where she had begun to have some success as an artist and returned to India.

In India, Sher-Gil’s first effort was to find a mode of delineation appropriate to her Indian subjects. Influenced in particular by the wall paintings of the Ajanta Caves in western India, she attempted to fuse their aesthetic with the European oil painting techniques she had learned in Paris. She considered the school retrograde and blamed it for what she called the stagnation that characterized Indian painting of the time. An exceptional colourist, Sher-Gil was able to achieve special effects with colours that were unbridled and bold, in direct contrast to the pale hues in vogue among her contemporaries.

In 1937 she set out on a tour of South India. Her works from that period,  “Brahmacharis”, “South Indian Villagers Going to Market”, and “Bride’s Toilet” were startlingly different from the realist watercolour mode of Indian painting during that time. Those paintings represented her experimentation with form and were her first attempt at assimilating the tremendous impact made on her by the cave paintings of Ajanta as well as by those of Ellora.

In 1939 she moved back to India with her husband, settling in Saraya, Uttar Pradesh. She turned for inspiration to 17th-century Mughal miniatures, applying their sense of composition and colour to the formal system she had developed from the Ajanta paintings. In 1941 Sher-Gil and her husband moved to Lahore, where she died suddenly at the age of 28. Her last unfinished works reveal a move toward abstraction and incorporate colours even richer than those seen in her previous pieces.


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