Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings have always been highly coveted, given her remarkable aesthetic sensibility and the rarity of works produced in her short albeit prolific career. It’s no wonder then that they command steep prices at auctions. And now, her 1938-work, In The Ladies’ Enclosure, has fetched ₹37.8 crore at the Saffronart Summer Live auction in Mumbai, held on Tuesday, making this the highest-ever price achieved by the artist in an auction. This has now become the second-most expensive artwork by an Indian artist sold globally—V.S. Gaitonde’s Untitled (1961) continues to be the most expensive after having been sold for R39.98 crore in March this year at Saffronart.
Saffronart CEO and co-founder Dinesh Vazirani feels that the record-breaking sale of Amrita Sher-Gil’s seminal painting is a clear indication of her artistic merit. “The work highlights her growth and development as an artist and is a culmination of years of coming into her own as an artist of repute. It is, additionally, a rare work of the artist from that particular period to emerge in the art market and we are honoured to have played a part in creating a new benchmark with this auction,” he adds.
The Indo-Hungarian artist blended European and Indian styles in her work, and captured the lives and experiences of women in early 20th century India. “Her paintings are lauded for their timeless themes and qualities that powerfully resonate with women’s narratives even today,” mentions a blog post on Saffronart, published on July 8, 2021.
Sher-Gil was born in 1913 to Marie Antoinette Gottesmann, Hungarian-Jewish opera singer and Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, a Sikh aristocrat, scholar and photographer. In 1929, she went on to study art at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Sher-Gil’s return to India in 1934 marked a significant change in her style. Her palette began to reflect earthy tones, and her paintings were inspired by her immediate surroundings.
In The Ladies’ Enclosure, an oil on canvas painted in 1938, depicts a group of women gathered in a field. The Saffronart post quotes Sher-Gil’s nephew and noted contemporary artist, Vivan Sundaram, about the subjects of the painting, who were incidentally known to Sher-Gil—including members of the Majithia family who had been living in the family estate at Saraya over long periods of time. “The bride’s profiled features are drawn schematically: on a pale pink skin colour, four notational lines for the eye and a tiny dot for the pupil. This is to de-romanticize the face—modern art’s agenda to get rid of the shackles of realist painting. Amrita’s flat application of paint and minimal drawing gives this person a remote presence, a quiet austerity,” mentioned Vivan Sundaram about the work in Amrita Sher-Gil: In the Ladies’ Enclosure: A Close Reading and a Walk Through the Enclosure, Mumbai: Saffronart, 2021.
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Art historian and curator Yashodhara Dalmia, who has authored Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life, finds the colour palette reminiscent of early Rajput miniatures. “This is an important painting in her oeuvre, created during the later period of her practice. She had achieved a certain level of understanding and perception,” she elaborates. In Ladies’ Enclosure, she uses the device of the miniatures to depict the women in bright primary colours. However, there are unique contrasts, of sorts. While the colours are deeply vivid, there is a certain sense of isolation and loneliness in the profile of the woman. “It seems as if people are preparing for a forthcoming marriage. But the woman’s face and demeanour shows loneliness, as if wondering about the future will hold. In a subtle way, Amrita Sher-Gil is showing the condition of women at that time,” adds Dalmia. In The Ladies’ Enclosure is one of her largest works from the late period of her practice, before she passed away in 1941.
According to Arvind Vijaymohan, chief executive, Artery India, an art market intelligence firm, 68 of Sher-Gil’s works have come up for auction in the past 34 years, with only 16 being canvases. “When she passed away, her family handed over a collection of Sher-Gil paintings to the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi. Hence, you will find very few works available for sale in private hands, primarily the few that were sold during her lifetime,” he says. "She led a fascinating life, lived purely by her own rules, and in her passing away at a tragically young age, while still at the prime of her practice, left behind a legacy that is almost custom-crafted for extreme and unconditional demand."
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While European sensibilities tempered her early understanding of art, what makes Sher-Gil’s work important from an art historical perspective is her quest for her roots, which she unravelled through her works while travelling extensively throughout the country. In The Ladies’ Enclosure was made during this important phase, in the late 1930s. She continued to paint academic portraits, but her works started developing a clear “Indianness”, during this phase. Paintings from the 1930s, such as Bride’s Toilet and Bhrmacharis, are considered to bear the quintessential Sher-Gil signature.
Given the scarcity of her work, every time an important painting is featured in an auction, the bar is raised. “2015 was a breakthrough year when three small format self-portraits were auctioned in March, June and October, achieving Rs. 53 crores collectively. In 2018, an academic portrait, The Little Girl in Blue, painted in 1934, was auctioned for ₹18.7 crore,” says Vijaymohan. According to him these are portraits and not “qualitatively” comparable to the picture that sold on Tuesday. “The composition, perspective and density of this canvas hasn't been seen at auction since 2006, when another qualitatively richer painting by Sher-Gil titled Village Scene sold for Rs. 6 crores. In The Ladies’ Enclosure is, all the same, a thoroughly collectable, historically significant canvas that, in my opinion, has sold under its justifiable value,” he adds.