Amrita Sher-Gil’s father, Sardar Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, who comes of an old and noble family of the Punjab, is a great scholar, keenly interested in the study of comparative religion and philosophy. A man of retiring and scholarly temperament, yet a pioneer of the religious and social emancipatory movement, in 1912 he married a young Hungarian aristocrat, several of whose relations were deeply interested in the arts, particularly painting, and who was herself a talented musician and a remarkable person in many ways. In this background of art and philosophy were born in Hungary, in 1913 and 1914, Amrita and her sister, Indira. The first seven years of Amrita Sher-Gil’s life were spent in the turmoil of war and post-war Hungary. In 1921 Sardar Umrao Singh Sher-Gil returned with his wife and young daughters to India, and made Simla his permanent home.
In 1929, in response to her desire to study purely Western Art, her parents took Amrita Sher-Gil to Paris, where, after studying for only three months under Pierre Vaillant, in the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, she was, at the age of sixteen, admitted as a pupil of the great Professor Sucien Simon, at the Ecole des Beaux Arts being both the youngest pupil in the Atelier, and the first Indian to have been admitted into the Ecole des Beaux Arts.
In 1932, she exhibited a work in the Grand Salon, of which, in 1933, she was elected an associate. At the end of 1934, she returned with her family to their Simla home, where she has shown five works in the Simla Fine Arts Society’s annual Exhibition, gaining H. H. the Raja of Faridkot’s prize, and a high commendation. Since then she has been exhibiting in the All-India Fine Arts & Crafts Society, where she gained in 1936 a Gold Medal, and the Chief Commissioner’s prize for the best portrait in the Exhibition.
From her infancy, Amrita Sher-Gil was destined to be a painter in oils, for her work up to the age of sixteen, although in water-colour and pencil, displayed an incipient oil-colour technique.
With the commencement in 1929 of her studies in Paris, came a period during which her as yet entirely unformed conception of Art led her work to undergo a transitory academic phase. Carried forward by the love of her medium, she developed a facility and brilliance in this technique which gained her, in 1933, the associateship of the Grand Salon, Paris. At this time, Amrita Sher-Gil was pursuing this technique absolutely convinced as to its inevitable artistic ‘rightness’. (This technique was later outgrown without leaving any effect on the artist’s style). Yet she was always instinctively averse to the ‘insipid rosy-white Western types’ and repelled by the drabness of the mechanised cities of the West.
At that time her work had little emotional depth. Her latent profound dissatisfaction with the subjects she found in Europe had, during her academic phase, been overlaid by the pleasure she derived from her facility in the handling of her medium.
But with the realization of the inadequacy of more technical brilliance to fulfil her now developing artistic perception she hardly painted for a year. It was only after her revolt from academic technique that she began to understand painting ‘per se’.
During this period the conviction gradually dawned on Amrita Sher-Gil that her future as a painter was bound up with ‘the brown skins, the thin, angular bodies’, and she returned to India in 1934 to commence formulating an entirely individual technique fundamentally Indian in spirit.
Amrita Sher-Gil’s work is both emotionally and technically of real talent and we are confident of a bright future for her.
Published in 4 Arts Journal, 1936-37