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Lost portrait by one of India's most famous female artists resurfaces after 90 years

Published 4th March 2021
Credit: Christie's Images Ltd.
Lost portrait by one of India's most famous female artists resurfaces after 90 years
Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
A long-forgotten painting by Amrita Sher-Gil, one of India's most important modern artists, is going under the hammer for the first time.
The rediscovered portrait is expected to fetch up to $2.8 million at a rare auction appearance for the painter's work, little of which remains in private hands.
Depicting one of Sher-Gil's friends, art critic Denyse Proutaux, "Portrait of Denyse" shows its subject wearing a red velvet dress in front of vividly colored flowers. According to Christie's, which is handling the sale, the oil painting was previously unknown to experts, having been in private collections in France since it was created almost nine decades ago.
The auction house said it is one of only four known portraits of Proutaux. Using letters exchanged by the French art critic and her husband, as well as her correspondence with Sher-Gil and her sister, researchers were able to date the work to 1932, when the artist was just 19.
That same year, Sher-Gil also produced the painting "Young Girls" -- also featuring Proutaux as one of its models -- which earned early international recognition and won a gold medal at the prestigious Paris Salon art show. Sher-Gil would go on to be described as India's answer to Frida Kahlo, merging Western influences, like Post-Impressionism, with elements of classical Indian art.
"Portrait of Denyse" depicts Amrita Sher-Gil's friend, the art critic Denyse Proutaux.
"Portrait of Denyse" depicts Amrita Sher-Gil's friend, the art critic Denyse Proutaux. Credit: Christie's Images Ltd.
India's government, which recognized Sher-Gil as a "National Treasure" in 1976, has made it illegal to take her art out of the country without permission from authorities. So, while paintings housed outside of India occasionally appear at major auctions, they remain something of a rarity on the international art market.
"With very few paintings by Sher-Gil still in private collections, it is truly a privilege to discover a painting by this talented artist that was previously unknown to her collectors and admirers, and to bring it to its full glory and offer it the world stage it deserves," said Nishad Avari, a specialist in South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art at Christie's, in a press statement.
The majority of Sher-Gil's 172 documented works are now housed at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi though privately-owned art by the painter continues to change hands within India.
In 2018, her 1934 portrait "The Little Girl in Blue" sold for 187 million rupees ($2.6 million) at Sotheby's first ever Mumbai auction. Last year, a portrait she produced of her husband, Victor Egan, went under the hammer at Indian auction house Asta Guru for almost 109 million rupees ($1.5 million).

An artistic friendship

Born in Budapest to Indian-Sikh father and a Hungarian-Jewish mother, Sher-Gil moved between India and Europe as a child. She later spent time in France before returning to Lahore, then part of British India, where she died in 1941 aged just 28.
It was in Paris that she and her sister, Indira, befriended Proutaux. In its auction catalog, Christie's shines a light on the relationship between Proutaux and Sher-Gil, publishing a letter in which the French critic describes her as having "an intelligence and a personality like I had never met in a woman before."
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Writing to her partner Philippe Dyvorne in 1932, Proutaux also reveals details of the portrait sittings, saying that Sher-Gil "went crazy about my hair and absolutely wanted to do my portrait with my hair loose."
"As (the painting) was for a competition and she had very little time, I posed almost non-stop for three days," she added.
The portrait will go under the hammer in New York on March 17, as part of Christie's "South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art" sale. The auction will include art by other prominent Indian figures, such as Subodh Gupta and the late Tyeb Mehta, whose featured works carry top estimates of $600,000 and $800,000, respectively.