One of four known portraits by artist Amrita Sher-Gil of her friend Denyse Proutaux is heading to a Christie’s auction on March 17. The rarely seen work is estimated to fetch between $1.8-2.8 million (approximately Rs 13.1 crore to Rs 20.4 crore) in a New York auction.
Standing against an abstract flower bed or rather a wall, full of flowers, a young, of a self-assured Parisian lady of style with tightly set hair and rouged skin looks intently at the viewers, while her red velvet dress with its lace collar and the delicate floral pendant around her neck ease the tension of this gaze between subject and viewer.
In this work and several others from the period, Sher-Gil masters the psychological portrait, able to capture a plethora of conflicting emotions and identities with ease and sophistication.
So who is the subject of the portrait?
A French art critic herself, Denyse became a sort of muse for Sher-Gil and appeared in some of her other paintings such as Young Girls from 1932, where is partially undressed alongside the artist’s dressed sister. The work won a Gold Medal at the Grand Salon that year.
In letters to her partner Philippe Dyvorne, Denyse wrote that she had done several sittings for Amrita Sher-Gil.
“Did I tell you about my Hindu friend? Imagine that her sister has been at the Beaux-Arts for two years and is very talented and very knowledgeable. So when she saw me, she went crazy about my hair and absolutely wanted to do my portrait with my hair loose. As it was for a competition and she had very little time, I posed almost non-stop for three days, and that’s why I couldn’t write to you as I had promised you. I’ve never known such an amazing girl, you know Phil? She has an intelligence and a personality like I had never met in a woman before, and also a very great talent, very powerful and robust, all her works seem to be made by a man. And she’s only eighteen with it all,” reads a letter excerpt released by the auction house.
The work was dated on the base of one such letter dated 22 February 1932 where she refers to it as the painting in ‘Russian Style.’
Denyse Proutaux, Amrita and her sister Indira became close friends as they all together meandered through the Paris art scene during 1929-3, and then holidayed at the seafront in Royan.
In another large third large composition in 1933, Sher-Gil included Denyse, Indira, herself and a model and eventually gifted Denyse’s seated figure from this canvas after cutting it out to Denyse. The largest she ever attempted, the painting was lost during the Second World War.
“It is an honour to present this rediscovered work by Amrita Sher-Gil in our March auction. 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, Specialist and Head of Sale for South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art in a statement from the auction house.
Today, the majority of her 172 documented works reside in the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.
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).