Self Portrait as Tahitian: A Masterpiece from Modern India

Amrita Sher-Gil, an avant garde modern India artist, painted Self Portrait as Tahitian to exhibit the repression of females in subcontinent.

Self Portrait as Tahitian

You might have heard about the recent news that in the United States, a school principal recently resigned after parents complained about a lesson displaying Michelangelo’s David, one of the world’s most famous sculptures. The poor-minded people found the Renaissance era, with The Creation of Adam and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and David as examples of pornography. It is hard to imagine how far these fickle-minded people could go calling the most spiritual era, Renaissance, pornographic, just because of eroticism and nudity. In my opinion, it is too customary for incidents like these to occur, and sometimes I think that people have been viewing art from the wrong perspective. Look at old Indian sculptures or any art form of the Romans that has shown the human body in nudity. One must understand that nakedness is not about eroticism but symbolism and deep meaning with divinity in them. The time showcased that lust was never subordinated to the naked body; it was never present. In India, the sexual parts of male and female symbolize the beginning and core of any creation. And sexual intercourse is the symbol of eternal creation and fertility. For Renaissance artists like Michelangelo and Botticelli, it was more about showing divinity and not morbid sexual desire. Hence, the nudism we see is nothing but the filth of our minds, as it envisions divinity and spirituality. When this message came into the modern world, artists like Frida Kahlo and Amrita Sher-Gil portrayed the naked woman as a symbol of the actual state of their being with symbolism rather than eroticism. Hence, for any art lover, it becomes significant to study the paintings and sculptures with openness instead of filth and untrue facts. Today, we are here to learn about one of the most crucial paintings of the modern era, which defines the feminine trait by our favourite artist, Amrita Sher-Gil. So, let us together study Self Portrait as Tahitian.

General Information about the Artwork.

1. Artist’s Statement.

“Modern art has led me to the comprehension and appreciation of Indian painting and sculpture. It seems paradoxical, but I know for certain that had we not come away to Europe, I should perhaps never realised that a fresco from Ajanta or a small piece of sculpture in the Musee Guimet is worth more than a whole Renaissance.”

2. Subject Matter.

The subject matter of the composition is a large self-portrait of the artist, which stands half nude, wrapping a plain white cloth around her waist. She has loosely tied jet-black hair, parted from the middle, brown skin, and a firm stance. In a later section of this article, we’ll read about other compositional elements, including an in-depth study of the subject.

Self Portrait as Tahitian Amrita Sher-Gil

3. Artist.

Amrita Sher-Gil, one of the modern Indian artists, painted Self Portrait as a Tahitian. To point out the individuality in society, Amrita painted poor from Hungarian gipsies and Parisian consumptive to the Indian peasants throughout her career. With the blend of techniques from Western artists like Cezanne, Gauguin and Brancusi and inspired by the Ajanta fresco paintings with the miniature art in Pahari style, Amrita contributed to modern Indian art with something scarce in the culture. She once said in a letter to her mother,

“You will say that I am a self-opinionated monkey, but I stick to my ‘intolerant’ ideas and my convictions.”

Amrita Sher-Gil photo

4. Date.

The composition Self Portrait as Tahitian, dates back to 1934.

5. Provenance.

A brief history of the artwork connects from 1929 to 32 when Amrita was still a student at the École des Beaux-Arts, and she widely painted self-portraits. To give a new look to her art, she transitioned between the modern and Indian bodies of work to suggest an aspiration. With regards to a young female protagonist who subverted modern conventions of the female nude with a mixture of elements and influences, Amrita painted the Self-Portrait as a Tahitian diligently.

Little do we know about her life during her stay in Paris was that she became ingrained in the city’s cultural and artistic social circles. Amrita won first prizes in the annual still-life and portrait competition every year during her first three years at the École des Beaux-Arts. And not to forget, art critics praised the force and vigour of her work when she exhibited at the Grand Salon in 1932. She won a Gold Medal the following year for her large-scale painting Young Girls, which was voted “the picture of the year,” and was elected as a Grand Salon Associate, becoming the youngest and only Asian to do so. Later in the article, I will discuss the entire history of this period and how it influenced her artwork.

6. Location.

The canvas is in the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi.

7. Technique and Medium.

The composition is oil on canvas with dimensions 94 x 72.4 cm. The artwork has Japonisme within modernist techniques with the strategies of self-portraiture and acts of masquerade undertaken by both Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh in the late 1880s. Now if you are confused with the terminology, don’t bother to remember it hard, as I will explain them in later sections. Also, I am attaching one of the famous Vincent van Gogh’s famous articles so that you know how Vincent’s paintings connected to the life of Amrita Sher-Gil through his paintings. In addition to all of these, there was a crucial influence- Gaugin primitivist styles through colours. Hence this painting is a fusion of numerous elements, which adds to the reinvention of European and Indian art.

ArtistAmrita Sher-Gil
Year Painted1932
MediumOil on sheet
GenreSelf Portraiture
Dimensions94 x 72.4 cm
WorthPriceless, Not on sale
Where is it housed?Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, India

To understand the painting absolutely, let us move into the following section.

Detailed Account of Self-Portrait as Tahitian by Amrita Sher-Gil.

About the Artist: Amrita Sher-Gil.

One of the avant-garde artists, Amrita, was a Hungarian Indian painter who was born in 1913. She was born to Umrao Sher-Gil, an Indian Sikh and Marie Antoinette, a Hungarian, who belonged to an upper-class artistic family. In her diary on the day of the birth of Amrita, Marie wrote,

“A bracing, cold wind from the frozen Danube whistles… the windows are covered with hoar frost.”

The artist had a Hungarian name, Dalma.

Drawn towards painting at a young age, Amrita gained recognition, when she was nineteen for her oil painting, Young Girls. In 1929, she went to École des Beaux-Arts, where she received accolades at exhibitions in school for her portraits and still lifes. During this period, she learnt under the guidance of Lucien Simon and became an associate member of Salon. Amrita experimented with painting the urban Paris life along with a study of nudes, still-life, and portraits of acquaintances and friends. With her extensive travels, including countries, Turkey, France, and India, she perceived knowledge of varied art styles and cultures. Besides painting, Amrita was a multi-linguist who played the piano, enjoyed ballroom dancing, cooked and loved sculptures. While the artist was in Europe in 1929, she explored famous art movements like Cubism, Fauvism, and Chirico’s Surrealism, but what most impressed her was the post-impressionist artist’s Paul Cezanne and Gauguin. After she returned to India in 1934, she took broad tours of Ajanta Ellora caves and studied Rajasthani miniature arts. During this time of visit, Indian art was just directionless, as we saw from the words of Charles Fabri. He said,

“On the one hand, we had here a half-dying art of sentimental painting in watercolours reminiscence of Edmund Dulac. Weak, ill-drawn paintings of no merit, based on the worst period of ancient miniature and mural painting, soft and dripping without mawkish sentiment. On the other hand, the government schools of art imparted a watered-down variety of academic impressionism … This soulless, imitative, episodic art did not know where to go.”

Amrita Sher-Gil in French clothing

Even Amrita found the Bengal School of Art disappointing because the canvases could not capture vibrant colours and textures of India. As a result of this school’s stagnation, she pointed out that Indian art had been ‘cramped and crippled‘ by its creative spirit.

It made her note in her diary,

“To interpret the life of Indians, particularly the poor Indians, pictorially, to paint those silent images of infinite submission and patience, to depict their angular brown bodies, strangely beautiful in their ugliness; to reproduce on canvas the impression their sad eyes created on me to interpret with a new technique, my technique, that transfers what might otherwise appeal on a plane that is emotionally cheap to the plane, which transcends it, and yet conveys something to the spectator, who is aesthetically sensitive enough to receive the sensation.”

And this turned the life of Amrita as she was purely dedicated to reforming the ongoing Indian art with her colours and canvases.

History and Background of the Painting.

In the 1930s, when India intensified with nationalist consciousness, the painting glorified the dynamic way to think about a historical entanglement with modernism and the authority of the national frame. However, one must understand that there were many elements behind the canvas, which for decades have gone unnoticed. For instance, there are Japanese motifs in the backdrop of the standing nude, based on Amrita’s understanding of Japonism with modernism. Japonisme was an art movement which described the craze of Japanese art, which was more of an expression. If you ever want to characterize it, note a few aspects, as it will usually have an asymmetrical composition with strong-diagonal lines and the shapes it forms will be elongated and cropped at an unusual angle. Other than this art movement, what really influenced this artwork was the primitivist styles and colours of Gauguin in Polynesia.

Additionally, if you are Vincent’s art lover, you might have noticed the radical paradigm of identity; presented by him in his compositions. With a thorough use of colours and subtle brush strokes, he showed an entirely next-level perspective of art. So, yes, this is also in the Self Portrait as Tahitian.

Before we step into other sections to understand what Amrita wanted to show with her depiction, let me tell you that Paul Gauguin painted the Tahitis painting in the 1880s. And the artist probably wanted to show her side of Tahitian, which is a blend of Indian brown skin. And to understand the subject and the difference between the two canvases, let us now step into the following sections.

Two Tahitis by Paul Gauguin

Subject Matter and Meaning of Amrita Sher-Gil Self Portrait.

Firstly, let us focus on the woman, which is the crucial subject of the painting. The painting portrays her as partially nude, covering herself from the waist down with a pale jade Polynesian wrap with no floral patterns and absolute dullness. Unlike in Gauguin’s painting, there are no flowers in hand or hair, which offers the European viewers the islands of the South Seas as a lush sexual paradise. Previously, I told you that when male artists used to paint females, they showed them as delicate and beautiful human figures, maintaining her decorum, but with the depictions of female artists, the female gives a clear message of society and mischief. You can notice in the subject of Gauguin and Amrita this fact.

Amrita Sher Gil Self Portrait as a Tahitian

Additionally, Amrita showed the female body as no offer for consumption but as a fearful reclining nude of Nevermore (1897).

Nevermore, 1897 by Paul Gauguin

The artist portrayed herself in a three-quarter profile view with full red lips and hands crossed in an X shape below her bare. Her depictions of bare and robust breasts with painted lips depart from a disempowering portrayal of Gauguin’s female subject. The red lips symbolise distinctive semiotics of desire, which expresses the women yearning and repression of female sexuality in the subcontinent, which was then quotidian in India.

The upper body and face of Amrita Sher-Gil in Self Portrait as Tahitian
Self Portrait as a Tahitian Crossed Hands

There is a use of erotic beauty with a shadowy presence of a male figure over her, recalling the ominous doppelgangers. It shows a young female artist who strives to make an artistic manoeuvre with the lack of any historical precedent of the country to rework modern Western painting for India, taking inspiration from Europe painters.

Saloni Mathur describes the artwork as,

“Self-Portrait as Tahitian can thus also be seen as an account, in part, of the phenomenon of historical particularity within the universalizing discursive arena of modernism. The painting makes visible both the European provenance of primitivism and the radical interruptions of its formations—its gendered subversions, its circuitous migrations, and its gestures of reproduction and difference—in and out of the colonial sphere.”

Now if you look closer, there are few Japanese motifs in the backdrop of the painting. In the context of Japonisme in Europe, it is a constellation of projections around Japan, which was artistic and commercial and took hold in the artistic circles of London and Paris in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

The backdrop of the Japanese motifs reveals a connection to the aesthetic precedents of different formations with modernism.

Now that you know a lot about Amrita’s portrayal of herself as Tahitian, let us walk into the next section to understand the elements of the composition.

Formal Analysis of Self Portrait as a Tahitian.

1. Line.

The subject matter of the composition has strong and dark contours with an intense facial figure with rigid lines. Now, in general, there is the presence of diagonal lines, present with Japanese motifs through cross-body structure and even the gaze, which creates a stirring contrast and instability. Further, there are circular lines in the forms of the female body, rounded breasts, and body curves, which tell the motion of Amrita’s place in the artistic circle.

Self Portrait as Tahitian Analysis

2. Light and Value.

There is an extraordinary contrast in the depiction of the subject with shadows and light. However, the gentle gradations and the lights form a rather disturbing canvas. If you look closer, the lights highlight symbolic elements, as I told you in the subject matter analysis. Additionally, you must note that there is an overpowering shadow of a man over the portrait of a female, which takes up most of the space on the canvas.

Self Portrait as Tahitian black and white

3. Colour.

There is the use of warm shades with an explosive expression of the red colour of lips. There is a higher tone of saturation and moderate hue strength that replicates a sense of excitement. Additionally, the subtle black and white creates a dramatic influence on the painting.

Opinions and Conclusions.

The painting, Self Portrait as Tahitian, is not only a portrayal of a standing nude with few artistic inventions, but a sense of desire with the figure’s eyes focussed on something in the distance and body turned in midturn. Maybe this picture initiates and reveals a process of aesthetic understanding of a young artist and her commitment to return to India.


1. Amalgamation of East and West in the Art of Amrita Sher-Gil.

2. A Retake of Sher-Gil’s Self-Portrait as Tahitian by Saloni Mathur.

3. Amrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paintbrush by Anita Vaccharajani.

4. Sher-Gil, letter to Karl J. Khandalavala, 16 May 1937, in Amrita Sher-Gil (Bombay, India: New Book Company, 1944), 1: p. 375.

5. Amrita Sher-Gil: An Indian Artist Family of the Twentieth Century (Prestel Pub, 2007).

6. India and Modern Art by W.G. Archer.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who painted Self Portrait as Tahitian?

Amrita Sher-Gil painted Self Portrait as Tahitian in 1932 when she was still a student at École des Beaux-Arts, Paris and with her paintings, taking modernism and Indian techniques into account to be a model and creating an entirely new style.

What style is the Self Portrait as Tahitian?

Self Portrait as Tahitian is a portraiture that exhibits Japonisme within modernist techniques and elements of masquerade by Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh in the late 1880s.

What is the meaning of Self Portrait as Tahitian?

Saloni Mathur, an art analyst says, “Self-Portrait as Tahitian can thus also be seen as an account, in part, of the phenomenon of historical particularity within the universalizing discursive arena of modernism. The painting makes visible both the European provenance of primitivism and the radical interruptions of its formations—its gendered subversions, its circuitous migrations, and its gestures of reproduction and difference—in and out of the colonial sphere.”

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