The year Tagore took to painting in his private study in Shantiniketan, the daughter of a Sikh aristocrat, the beautiful sixteen-year old Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-41), sailed with her Hungarian mother to France to study art in Paris, first at the Grande Chaumiere under Pierre Vaillant and subsequently at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where she was taught by Lucien Simon. Though she wanted to imbibe the air of the leafy boulevards of the French capital and sample its inimitable cafe life, this young woman would return to India in a few years' time and go on to become India's first and most famous female artist of the century. Emancipated, yet responsible, fun-loving but serious, assertive yet fragile, she provided a role model for women artists of future generations.
Amrita Shergil was not a product of Indian or Punjabi socio-cultural milieu. She was the daughter of Sardar IJmraosingh Shergil and Antoinette, a Hungarian lady endowed with considerable artistic talent. She was born in Budapest in 1913, and spent the formative years of her life in Europe. She dabbled in paint from her early childhood. Her intelligent mother detected the talent latent in her, and encouraged her to paint. She took her to Italy and Paris, the hotbeds of artistic activity and the birthplace of many a historic art movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Amrita had the good fortune of studying at the best art school at Paris, the Ecole des Beaux Arts, under the competent guidance of great masters. Besides, living in Paris, she had the added advantage of visiting art galleries, museums, salons, etc. She studied the works of contemporary and ancient master painters in the original.
Amrita's work done during her stay in Europe till 1934 was largely academic, consisting of still-life, nude studies, portraits and the like. Her genius was to flower only after her return to her fatherland, India. She came here not as a foreigner attracted by the 'picturesque' India, and the exotic sights and smells; she came here as an Indian in feeling and spirit and with a mind to make this land her home. Despite her training in western art, she had complete awareness of and deep respect for India's artistic traditions. When she set foot on Indian soil for the first time in November 1934, she was haunted by the faces of the unhappy and dejected, poor and starving Indians whom she saw first around Simla, then in the South and finally in Punjab, where she was to spend the last days of her life (She died in Lahore in 1942). After settling down in Simla in early 1935, she took an important decision of interpreting "the life of Indians, particularly the poor, pictorially." This, she said, she would do "with a new technique, my own technique" and "this technique though not technically Indian, in the traditional sense of the word, will yet be fundamentally Indian in spirit." These words suggest that she had a clear idea of what she was to accomplish in the near future.
All her paintings portray incredibly thin, emaciated starving men and women. She painted the Pahari villagers whom she encountered around her Summer Hill residence in Simla, in her works captioned Hill Men and Hill Women. Then followed more works painted in the same style such as Bride's Toilet, Fruit Vendors, The Brahmachari, etc. All the figures painted by her, especially those of women, have lackluster eyes, an expression of resignation and despondency writ large on their drawn faces. Being a woman, she was naturally more interested in painting women and their activities. Since she was completely unfamiliar with their milieu, both social and family, she was fascinated by them; their cloistered shackled lives through which they moved like shadows. This mood of sorrow prevails in all her paintings.
Insofar as her achievements as a painter, rather as the first modern painter of Punjab as well as the entire nation, are concerned, Amrita had come a long way from her days in Paris. Despite her remarkable stylistic affinities with Gauguin, she was moving more and more towards an individual style of her own, that is, towards greater simplification of form and elimination of unimportant details. By 1936, she had seen the Ajanta frescoes that were to leave a deep impression on her style and colour schemes. In Fruit Vendors and Bride's Toilet, this influence is palpably discernible. Here we have the same Ajantesque simplification of physique and the same reliance on clear outime and firmly moulded form. This style marks almost all her paintings executed between 1935 and 1937. By this time, she had achieved that perfect blending of western techniques and Indian spirit, which no Indian painter had been able to achieve till then. She had laid the foundation of modern Indian art.
Then began the second and last phase of her artistic career (in 1938) that ended with her death in 1941. In the works done during this period, she moved further away from naturalistic shadows and relied more on imaginary treatment. Earlier, in Hill Women she had experimented with the use of shadows to create rounded forms; in her later works such as Red Clay Elephant there are hardly any shadows. She was endowed with an extraordinary sense of colour.
Amrita guided her contemporary painters not only by her works but also through lectures and articles in which she urged them not to cling to "traditions that were once vital, sincere and splendid and which are now merely empty formulae", nor to imitate fifth rate western art slavishly. She also told them to "break away from both and produce something vital, connected with the soil, something essentially Indian."
(Source: "Women of Punjab" as reproduced in www.sikh-heritage.co.uk)