Hungarian-Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil was one of India’s foremost modern artists, even though her career was tragically cut short when she died in 1941 at the age of 28. Because the volume of her output was relatively modest, few works by Sher-Gil ever come to market, but now Christie’s will sell a rarely seen portrait by the artist later this month.
Being sold during the house’s South Asian modern and contemporary art sale in New York on March 17, the artwork, which has been out of the public eye for almost 90 years, is expected to fetch a price of $2.8 million, the portrait. The subject of the portrait is Sher-Gil’s close friend art critic Denyse Prouteaux, whom she met while studying in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The work is thought to have been executed around 1932, when Sher-Gil was just 19-years-old.
Prouteaux was a recurring subject for Sher-Gil, with two portraits of her residing at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Delhi. Another portrait of Prouteaux from the same year won her the appointment as an associate of Paris’s Grand Salon in Paris—a rare credential for a foreign female artist of her age, according to Nishad Avari, the auction house’s head of sale and South Asian modern and contemporary art specialist, calling her, “a complete path-breaker.” Avari continued, “Sher-Gil is really a legendary artist. She paved the way for the next generation of artists.”
Today, Sher-Gil is one of India’s most famous female artists, recognized for brining Western Modernism to India following her time studying in Europe. She was born in Budapest in 1913 and her family moved to northern India when she was a child. At 16, she moved to Paris to study painting, eventually coming under the tutelage of Lucien Simon. Sher-Gil would continue to travel throughout India during her lifetime. “Art wasn’t a career path, particularly in India at that time,” Avari said.
The soon-to-be-auctioned painting remained in Prouteaux’s family for decades and has been in France since the 1930s when it was completed. The present work came to Christie’s attention out of the blue last year, according to Avari, from private collectors in France who had lived with the work for years and had no heirs to pass it to. The process of brining it to market, the specialist adds, was not an immediate one. Christie’s was tasked with doing in-depth research to vet the painting. (The painting will be offered alongside 59 works by the Indian artist Benode Behari Mukherjee, sold from the foundation of his late daughter, the artist Mrinalini Mukherjee.)
“It’s very rare that canvases by the artist come to the market, particularly outside of India,” Avari said. “There are very few in free circulation.” In 1976, the Indian government declared Sher-Gil “a national treasure,” which prohibits her work in India from being exported to other countries.
Only 10 pictures by Sher-Gil have ever sold on at auction. The last canvas sold at public auction was a rediscovered self-portrait from 1933, which made $2.92 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2015, against a high estimate of $1.8 million. Only 172 works by Sher-Gil are known to exist, all of which were published in her catalogue raisonné in 2010. (Christie’s Prouteaux portrait is not listed in the the catalogue raisonné.) Around 75 percent of the works listed in the catalogue raisonné were donated to the NGMA by her family following her death; Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, founded by ARTnews Top 200 Collectors Kiran and Shiv Nadar, also holds several works.