An Atypical Analysis of Amrita Sher-Gil’s Seminal Masterpiece From 1935
There’s much that has been said AND written about this work and even more about the legend who created it. Type the name of either into your internet search bar and you’ll see a host of webpages, articles, books and scores of other results showing up.
Sher-Gil has, for the most part, been idolized as the quintessential rock-star of Indian art and art history in general— and rightly so. Known to be a rebel in an age when women were viewed very differently, she even lived the proverbial twenty-eight years — the reason for her death: to this day — unknown.
Being that so much about Sher-Gil is already out there (Ŧ*), we’re therefore going to leave the pleasantries behind (barring the relevant details needed for the purpose of this analysis) and jump right into this masterpiece interpreting it from an angle that has, perhaps, never been done before.
To keep our review structured, we’re also going to look at this work following the FDAI (Feel-Describe-Analyse-Interpret) process. I’ve found that this method brings some structure to how we look at art and provides a holistic view of the work taking into consideration ALL the elements essential for art to be called art, viz. the work itself, its creator, and most importantly, the impact on the viewer/ spectator (or reader, as I like to call it).
PS: For a detailed look at the FDAI process check out my guide Art Essentials for the Everyday Enthusiast
So, let’s get to it.
Amrita Sher-Gil, 1935, 92.5 cm × 66.6 cm, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi
STEP 1: FEEL
At close to a meter in height the image provides a near-life-like view (in size) of the three girls.
The mood and expression of the girls (and choice in colours) feels somber and contemplative.
The low-ley (high dark content), warm, earthy palette is offset by the cool green of the figure in the left in a very interesting manner and catches the eye — I would venture to guess that the value/ intensity this was added in the closing stages of the execution of this work.
And it works well, especially in the context of the composition (more on that below); the feeling it creates is a sense of balance and stability.
With the veiled heads pointing down and away from the viewer, the echoes of the deep-rooted ideas of subservience of women prevalent in the subcontinent then, and even today (perhaps to an altered degree) ring loud and heavy. And that makes this painting feels extremely relevant even in our modern times.
STEP 2: DESCRIBE
Let’s dig a little deeper and look at the details of this work.
Artist: Amrita Sher-Gil (30 January 1913 – 5 December 1941)
Type of work: Painting
Medium: Oil on canvas
Year Created: 1935
Dimensions: 92.5 cm × 66.6 cm (36.4 in × 26.2 in)
National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi
The original work sits at the NGMA in Delhi (and I have not seen it).
The palette used in this oil painting is warm, low key, and balanced by a swathe of cool green that has been judiciously used not just as another element of art but as a compositional tool (see below for more details).
Close-up detail of the painting as it appears on the digital high-res reproduction on Wikipedia.. Note quality of brush strokes and the warm shades used for the underpainting.
The colours of the painting on high quality prints as well as digital reproductions of the work, however, seem to more or less match the original as seen on the Google Arts and Culture AR app.
But then again, reproductions can vary amongst themselves to vast degrees. Different screen resolutions can do too.
Close-up of colours of the painting as they appear on the digital high-res reproduction on Wikipedia
And after 87 years I’d assume the pigments in the paint must have darkened over the years, but because I have not seen the actual work to compare notes, I’m going to leave that right there.
Let’s add more to this description of the work in the sections below
The Artist and the Context in Which the Work was Created
Unknown author probably Umrao Singh Sher-Gil (1870–1954)
Much of Sher-Gil’s style and unique perspectives comes from her natural place, position in society and her life experiences.
Born to a Hungarian mother and a Sikh father, she received her early training at one of the most prestigious and influential art institutions in the world — the L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, in Paris.
Sher-Gil perhaps best describes herself in her own words — " I am an individualist, evolving a new technique, which, though not necessarily Indian in the traditional sense of the word, will yet be fundamentally Indian in spirit. With the eternal significance of form and colour I interpret India and, principally the life of the Indian poor on the plane that transcends the pane of mere sentiment interest."
It is said that the Three Girls was the first painting Sher-Gil worked on after she returned from her studies in Paris. The models were Amrita’s first cousins.
Also referred to as Group of Three Girls, the painting won the Gold Medal at the annual exhibition of the Bombay Art Society in 1937.
With that, we'll conclude this part of the post. In the next part we'll go through the two remaining steps in the FDAI process.
I'll see you on the next one.
in a bit!
footnotes and links
All images of original artworks here are copyright of their respective creators/ owners and are used here only for educational purposes. All other content is copyright © Malcolm Fernandes.
Ŧ* I’ve also found a page on Sher-Gil on Sartle. Sartle mixes serious art history with snarky observations and hilarious, strange and shocking facts about artworks and artists for you to enjoy.
Ŧ* Another good place to learn more about this work is on Artiana.
See the real thing at NGMA, Delhi
The Ecole today: L’Ecole des Beaux Arts