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ART ESSENTIALS: Women Artists - Read an Extract

Posted on 28 Mar 2019

'Women Artists' is an accessible introduction to the often hidden life and works of women artists from both contemporary and historic eras. Read an exclusive extract below.


Amrita Sher-Gil once stated: ‘Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse and Braque and many others. India belongs only to me.’ Through this bold statement, Sher-Gil made clear that her art was to India what the triad of men and their many followers had been to Europe: revolutionary. She was pitching herself as a beacon of modern Indian art and this is indeed what Sher-Gil is best known for, both in India and abroad. Of Indian descent, Sher-Gil was born in Budapest, where she spent the first eight years of her life. In 1921 she left Europe with her family and moved to Simla in the north of India. A few years later Sher-Gil’s mother insisted that Amrita and her sister set ofor Florence to perfect their artistic training. However, the Italian sojourn was short-lived and within five months the two sisters were back in Simla.

In 1927 the arrival of Sher-Gil’s uncle Ervin Baktay, marked a turning point in the artist’s development. He promptly identified Sher-Gil’s artistic talent and encouraged her to pursue it further
by studying in Paris. As a result the entire family moved to Paris
in 1929, where Sher-Gil was enrolled first at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and then at the École Nationale des Beaux- Arts. In 1933 she exhibited Young Girls (1932) at the Grand Salon and became a member of the prestigious Société Nationale through this picture. The work qualifies as a conversation piece, where the viewer is given access to an intimate tête-à-tête between two girls. It showed Amrita’s sister, Indira, seated and fully dressed facing the viewer, and a friend – a blonde girl with her long locks clad in a light veiled garment. Sher-Gil captured the sense of mutual aection between the two girls as they chatted away.


Amrita Sher-Gil Group of Three Girls, 1935 Oil on Canvas, 73.5 x 99.5 cm (287⁄8 x 391⁄8 in.) National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi Sher-Gil painted this work following her return to India from Europe in 1934. The painting shows three colourfully dressed girls set against a plain sand-coloured background. Their expressions are sombre, revealing a certain degree of resignation towards a future over which they have no control.

In 1934 she returned to India with her parents and settled in Simla, where she embarked on an ambitious plan to introduce modern art to India. As her art developed Sher-Gil rid herself of the academic style that she had learnt in Paris and rediscovered her Indian roots. She endeavoured to deepen her knowledge of Indian

art by studying and travelling extensively. Works like Group of Three Girls (1935; opposite) show how she was incorporating the style of Hindu miniatures and local decorative painters, with the synthetic simplicity that she had absorbed from European masters like Paul Gauguin and Amedeo Modigliani. For the artistic renewal of Indian art, she combined indigenous values with a modern European style.

During her time in India she felt intellectually challenged and stimulated by the many acquaintances she made; these included the political leader Jawaharlal Nehru, whom she met in 1937. In 1938 she once again left India for Europe where she married her first cousin Victor Egan. Soon after, the couple returned to India where Egan tried to establish a medical practice and Sher-Gil dedicated herself to painting. Due to a fatal illness Sher-Gil died aged only twenty-eight in 1941. Despite her short-lived career, her work is still hailed as an important landmark in the transition from traditional to contemporary Indian art.



1936 – Sher-Gil takes part in an exhibition with the Ukil Brothers at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Bombay (now Mumbai).

1937 – Sher-Gil is awarded a gold medal at the ‘46th Annual Exhibition of the Bombay Art Society’ for her painting Group of Three Girls (above).

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