Amrita Shergill was born in Hungary in 1913. Her father was a Sikh aristocrat and her mother was Hungarian. Both her parents were artistically inclined. Her father, Umrao Singh Majitha, was a Sanskrit Scholar and her mother, Marie Antoinette, was a pianist. Amrita spent her early childhood in the village of Dunaharasti in Hungary. In 1921 her family moved to Shimla. It was at this time that Amrita Shergil developed interest in painting.
In 1929, at the age of sixteen, Amrita Shergil sailed to France to study Art. She took a degree in Fine Arts from the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris. She also learnt to speak and write French. It was in France that she started painting seriously. The Torso, one of her early paintings was a masterly study of a nude which stood out for its cleverness of drawing and bold modeling. In 1933, Amrita completed Young Girls. Critics and Art enthusiasts were so impressed by Young Girls that Amrita Shergill was elected as Associate of the Grand Salon in Paris. Amrita was the youngest ever and the only Asian to be honored thus.
In 1934, while in Europe she "began to be haunted by an intense longing to return to India feeling in some strange way that there lay my destiny as a painter", as she later wrote about her return to India the same year. She began a quest for the rediscovery of the traditions of Indian art which was to continue till her death. In May 1935 in Shimla Amrita met the English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, then working as Assistant Editor and leader writer for the Calcutta Statesman. Both Malcolm and Amrita stayed at the family home at Summer Hill, Shimla and a short intense affair took place during which she painted a casual portrait of her new lover, the painting now with the National Gallery in New Delhi.
She was greatly impressed and influenced by the Mughal and Pahari schools of painting and the cave paintings at Ajanta. Later in 1937, she toured South India and produced the famous South Indian trilogy of paintings Bride's Toilet, Brahmacharis, and South Indian Villagers Going to Market following her visit to the Ajanta caves, when she made a conscious attempt to return to classical Indian art. These paintings reveal her passionate sense of colour and an equally passionate empathy for her Indian subjects, who are often depicted in their poverty and despair. By now the transformation in her work was complete and she had found her 'artistic mission' which was, according to her, to express the life of Indian people through her canvas. While in Saraya Sher-Gil wrote to a friend thus: "I can only paint in India. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse, Braque.... India belongs only to me".
She married her Hungarian first cousin, Dr. Victor Egan in 1938 and moved with him to India to stay at her paternal family's home in Saraya in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. Thus began her second phase of painting which equals in its impact on Indian art with the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy of the Bengal school of art. In September 1941, Victor and Amrita moved to Lahore, then in undivided India and a major cultural and artistic centre. She lived and painted at 23 Ganga Ram Mansions, The Mall, Lahore where her studio was on the top floor of the townhouse she inhabited. Amrita was known for her many affairs with both men and women and many of the latter she also painted. Her work Two Women is thought to be a painting of herself and her lover Marie Louise.
In 1941, just days before the opening of her first major solo show in Lahore, she became seriously ill and slipped into a coma. She later died around midnight on 6 December 1941, leaving behind a large volume of work. The reason for her death has never been ascertained. A failed abortion and subsequent peritonitis have been suggested as possible causes for her death. Her mother accused her doctor husband Victor of having murdered her. Amrita was cremated on 7 December 1941 at Lahore.
Sher-Gill's art has influenced generations of Indian artists from Sayed Haider Raza to Arpita Singh and her depiction of the plight of women has made her art a beacon for women at large both in India and abroad. The Government of India has declared her works as National Art Treasures, and most of them are housed in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. A postage stamp depicting her painting 'Hill Women' was released in 1978 by India Post, and the Amrita Shergill Marg is a road in Lutyens' Delhi named after her. In 2006, her painting Village Scene sold for ₹6.9 crores at an auction in New Delhi which was at the time the highest amount ever paid for a painting in India.