The Story Of Indian Art #20: Francis Newton Souza

A look at the life and work of iconic artist Francis Newton Souza who's painting "Birth" (1955) set a world auction record for the most expensive Indian painting sold, selling for US$2.5 million in 2008.

With a few slashing lines and a raw, expressive energy, Francis Newton Souza stripped away all traces of artifice. Be it the sluts or the suits, the seamy side of life or the steamy, the gnomish, pox-scarred boy from Goa who went on to become one of the first Indian artists to be feted in the salons of Europe, laid it bare. Let’s get to know him better.

Francis Newton Souza

Iconic Artist Francis Newton Souza

Early years Souza

Francis Newton Souza (12 April 1924 – 28 March 2002), commonly referred to as F. N. Souza, was an Indian artist and founding member of the Progressive Artists’ Group of Bombay. Souza was the first post-independence Indian artist to achieve high recognition in the West.

Souza was born to Roman Catholic parents of Goan origin in the village of Saligao in Goa. In 1929, after he had moved to Mumbai with his family, he survived an attack of smallpox which left him scarred for life. His grateful mother added Francis to his name, after St Francis Xavier, the patron saint of Goa.

Educating Souza

He attended St. Xavier’s College in Bombay and was expelled from there for drawing graffiti in a toilet, which he claimed he was correcting, but the priests did not accept his claims.

Souza studied art at the Sir J. J. School of Art in Bombay but was expelled in 1945 for his support for the Quit India Movement.

Landscape 1958 by Francis Newton Souza

Landscape (1958) by Francis Newton Souza

Art of Souza

In 1947 he was a founding member of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group which encouraged Indian artists to participate in the international avant-garde.

In 1948 Souza’s paintings were shown at an exhibition in London’s Burlington House. In 1949 Souza moved to London, where initially struggling to make an impact as an artist, he worked as a journalist.

Man and Woman (1954) by Francis Newton Souza

Man and Woman (1954) by Francis Newton Souza

In 1954, The Institute of Contemporary Arts included his work in an exhibition. His name as an artist gained recognition following the publication in 1955 of his autobiographical essay Nirvana of a Maggot in Stephen Spender’s Encounter magazine. Spender introduced Souza to the art dealer Victor Musgrave, the owner of Gallery One. Souza’s 1955 exhibit was a sold out, leading to ongoing success.

From then, Souza’s career developed steadily, and he participated in several shows, receiving positive reviews from John Berger. His style was, as Berger pointed out, deliberately eclectic: essentially Expressionist in character, but also drawing on the post-war Art Brut movement and elements of British Neo-romanticism.

In 2008, his painting “Birth” (1955) set a world auction record for the most expensive Indian painting sold till then by selling for US$2.5 million (Rs 11.3 crore) at a Christie’s auction. In 2015, the painting “Birth” was resold at Christie’s in New York, fetching more than US$4 million.


Birth set the record for most expensive Indian painting sold in 2008

In June 2010 Christie’s held an auction of over 140 lots from the Souza Estate. Many of Souza’s works fetched very high prices, some several times Christie’s estimates.

Mind of Souza

At the heart of Souza’s creativity was the belief that society’s destructive aspects shouldn’t be suppressed. On the contrary, they should be aired and confronted. Be it the hypocrisy of the church, the corruption of the upper classes or the repression of sexuality in a country that has a Khajuraho, he was uncovering the underbelly of existence.

Final years of Souza

From 1967 he settled in New York City, only to return to India shortly before his death. Souza was buried in Sewri cemetery in Mumbai, in a quiet funeral on 30 March 2002.

Avinash Subramaniam

Avinash has been an advertising writer, fiction writer, poetry writer, freelance writer and serial wronger. Other roles he has been in include those of an editor, brand builder, and teacher. His interests include advertising, scrabble, body building, chess, cinema, making money, reading, internet culture, cricket, photography. To hear him air his thoughts, follow him on Twitter @armchairexpert.


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