Discover Amrita Sher-Gil, The Last Unfinished Painting

This enigmatic, incomplete painting tells the story of a young artist working between cultures

By Google Arts & Culture

The Last Unfinished Painting (1941) by Amrita Sher-GilNational Gallery of Modern Art

Amrita Sher-Gil was born in Budapest, 1913, the daughter of an Indian Sikh aristocrat and a Hungarian opera singer. From a young age she was encouraged to paint, and quickly developed her taste and skills.

At the age of 16, Sher-Gil travelled to Europe with her mother, in order to study art at the prestigious Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the École des Beaux-Arts. Under teacher Lucien Simon, she drew inspiration from European painters Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin.

As the title implies, this work was her last, and remained unfinished with her sudden death in December 1941 at the age of just 28.

Many of Sher-Gil's earlier works were naturalistic portraits, making this last work unusual and intriguing.

Self Portrait (5) (1932) by Amrita Sher-GilNational Gallery of Modern Art

This self portrait from 1932 is typical of her earlier work. She paints with loose brushstrokes and a bright palette, focussing on the face and the hands while expressing the lightness of her fashionable dress.

The Last Unfinished Painting (1941) by Amrita Sher-GilNational Gallery of Modern Art

In this painting, the palette is darkened, and architecture, animals, and vegetation occupy the picture space in a totally new way.

Four cows rest in an alleyway, but lacking perspective or definition, their bodies seem to be melded together.

At first it appears empty of people, but at least two figures are hidden, barely perceptible, in the scene. Their orange cloaks and white skirts barely mark them out against the brown background.

The architecture of this urban landscape is reduced to blocks of paint with indistinct edges. A sense of distance is conveyed in flat panels of colour - red, yellow, brown - each suggesting a different quality of light and shadow.

This simple method creates the effect of depth, but with none of the careful brushwork expected of landscape painters.

There's a strong resemblance between this enigmatic landscape and the depopulated, abstracted quarries painted by Cézanne in his later years.

La carrière de Bibémus (The Quarry at Bibémus) (um 1895) by Paul CézanneMuseum Folkwang

Paul Cézanne, The Quarry at Bibémus, 1895

The Last Unfinished Painting (1941) by Amrita Sher-GilNational Gallery of Modern Art

You can see Sher-Gil's work as bringing European aesthetics to Indian subjects, though where other artists did this as 'outsiders', she had some claim to be working 'inside or between cultures.

Sher-Gil's techniques resemble those of Cézanne, while her palette of red, browns, and yellows appears to be drawn from Paul Gauguin's post-impressionist works, and speaks of the earthy colours which she became accustomed to in India.

Like Cézanne's various quarry paintings, this is a quiet and meditative work. But you can't help thinking about what Sher-Gil intended to do with this painting? How close to finishing was she? Were there details to be added, or was this enough?

Unfortunately, a few days before the opening of her first major solo exhibition in Lahore, Sher-Gil became seriously ill and slipped into a coma shortly before dying.

She may have suffered from a failed abortion, or she may have been murdered by her own husband - the cause has never been proved.

Amrita Sher-Gil's legacy lives on in Europe and India. Her works are considered 'national treasures' of India. Many are held at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, and the Indian cultural centre in Budapest is named after her.

Thanks for joining this tour of Amrita Sher-Gil's The Last Unfinished Painting, while you're here, take a look around the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, and see if you can spot her works.

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