An Atypical Analysis of Amrita Sher-Gil’s Seminal Masterpiece From 1935
In the previous post we began our analysis of this masterpiece through the lens of the FDAI guiding process. Having put down notes and observations on the first two steps — Feel and Describe — in this post, we're going to move on the the last two.
Let's get to it!
STEP 3: ANALYSE
Lets’ do a compositional analysis of this work and list down our observations in points.
Group of Three Girls, by Amrita Sher-Gil, won her a gold medal from the Bombay Art Society. National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi. Oil on Canvas, 99.5 x 73.5 cm.
Sher-Gil, most probably, painted this in multiple sittings, and from life
This was painted indoors in artificial lighting and the painter was positioned fairly up-close to her models
The actual scene was carefully arranged and lit
The deep shadows at the back reveal:
The women are sitting against the backdrop of a wall
The primary light source was probably kept at waist level of the models and trained up at around 45 - 60 degree angle. This light source was warm and probably placed closer to the girl on the right.
The models were not only just placed in three-quarter profiles but Sher-Gil successfully translates the actual perspective of the scene onto the canvas.
Compositionally, what this means is that:
The three heads are turning at different angles (the girl on the left is more sharply turned away from the viewer versus the girl on the right versus the girl at the back.) This ensures that the picture does not appear flat with the figures on the same plane.
Creates interest by incorporating variety, rhythm and movement — all key principles in art and design. To find out more about these principles and other basic concepts in art check out the guide — Art Essentials for the Everyday Enthusiast — How Anyone can Read and Enjoy Art
There’s also a pleasant rhythm in the smooth lines and arcs (the arabesque) used throughout the picture (as shown below). Note the repeated cup-shaped arcs returning the viewer's eye upwards towards the faces of the girls.
The overall placement and pose of the girls bring unity to the piece, yet there is variety in the use of line, color, modeling of the forms and major shapes.
The use of line and shape also successfully keeps the viewer’s eye within the work.
The faces are arranged in a layered pyramid moving backwards revealing that the girl on right is closest to the light sources and the girl at the back farthest from it.
The shape language is rounded and feminine with virtually no sharp angles.
The overall style, line, palette and brushwork is, in several ways, similar to some of the post-impressionists who also lived and trained at the Ecole in Paris, thus illustrating Sher-Gil's key influences and the impact of her training days in Europe.
Paul Gauguin, Self-portrait (for my friend Daniel), 1896, Musée d'Orsay, oil on canvas.
Let's try something else...
Removing all colour from the picture and bringing the brightness all the way down while increasing the contrast reveals:
The colours used are fairly low key (high dark content) in value, with the lightest value being in the garments of the girl on the left.
Notice how Sher-Gil does not, however, use this value on the complete garment. The head-portion of the girl is kept in a low-key green so as to maintain unity of values around the face. ALL of the artist's design choices here work in the service of framing the main event — the girl's face.
Also notice how the darkest parts on the painting are the shadows behind the girls which go far in fortifying the framing of the subject of picture — the faces of the girls themselves and the emotions they reveal
Dividing the canvas rectangle using its natural verticals and diagonals reveals more secrets behind the design:
The models are arranged around major and minor diagonals of the main rectangle (as indicated in dotted black lines). Overall these are very pleasant proportional divisions that give the composition its beautiful balance and compelling character.
Notice how the flowing curves of the left arm of the girl on the right curves down and up into the hand which itself is turned upward. The lines created by this turn sync into the upward climb of the sari of the girl in green.
This isn't a random change in posture of the figure, but instead is a strategic design choice. The flowing line moves the viewers eye around, up and back into the figure on the left and keeps the viewer's eyes locked into the picture frame.
Look at the vast swathe of green clothing the left and the eye is immediately drawn to the girls face that it so brilliantly frames.
The use of the green is a strategic tool to create interest, balance the picture and keep the viewer's eye within the frame.
The green, which was relatively dry brushed to the show the warm underpainting below it is, in-fact, of medium-low saturation, but its high key (white content) and juxtaposition against the warm picture as a whole makes it pop and gives the overall picture all the balance it needs to stand up on its own.
The classical European training of the artist really comes through when you plot the key diagonals, horizontals and verticals of the rectangle over the picture.
The alignment of all major shapes, lines and angles in the figures to this geometric grid gives us a unique insight into the thinking of the artist.
This shows that the work isn’t random, but instead is based on intelligence, thoughtfulness and the formal principles of design and proportion as used by all the greats from the ancient Greeks to the artists of the Renaissance and, believe it or not, the masters of today.
STEP 4: INTERPRET
Knowing the varied background of the artist (and her progressive European upbringing), one can almost imagine the extreme degree of polar-opposites in culture, societies and mentality that Sher-Gil must have experienced while painting this image. And, through this image, the weight of that conflict can be felt bearing down on the invisible artist.
The painting, and all its exquisitely captivating composition and other technical elements, is incredibly alluring and paints a picture of the typical struggles of woman not only from the subcontinent but from around the world. And it's a message that still resonates today.
The Final Word: Three Girls is a beautiful piece of work. It is captivating and honest, and it fearlessly brings to the fore the silent plight and struggles of women by holding a mirror up to our history, culture, beliefs, values and more. Born in a world and an age of tremendous, burgeoning cross-cultural pollination, Amrita Sher-Gil — the westerner, the Indian, the artist, was a trailblazer and a creative force truly to be reckoned with.
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.
See the real thing at NGMA, Delhi http://ngmaindia.gov.in/index.asp (It’s on my list for sure!)