Born: 17 April 1901
Died: 31 July 1993

George Keyt - Art


Often referred to as Sri Lanka’s MF Husain, George Keyt was born in Kandy, Sri Lanka to a family of Sinhalese-Dutch origin on 17 April,1902. He has been acknowledged as Sri Lanka’s most renowned and celebrated modern painter who developed an interest in art, literature and music while schooling at Trinity College. Living close to the Malwatte Vihara, he got interested in Buddhism when he was in his twenties and embraced Buddhism. His earliest paintings done in the late 1920s, were close observations of nature. These included Udawattakele, the lush forest reserve in Kandy and Sangharaja Pirivena, a prominent temple in Kandy.1 Keyt was strongly influenced by cubist experiments in perspective, and he applied them in a way that was distinctly his own, drawing specifically from Indian artistic traditions. His subjects’ enlarged, almond-shaped eyes and his use of bold, crisp, heavy lines are defining formal features of his work; his subjects are often nudes, scenes from local village life, or taken from Hindu and Buddhist mythologies.

Keyt was part of the ‘43 Group, named as such as it was founded in the year 1943, which promoted art in Sri Lanka, and in the following years supported a number of young painters. Lionel Wendt played the key role in this Art movement and it was Wendt, in fact, who influenced Keyt in his decision to devote himself totally to a life at the easel. This chain of events showed Wendt that it was karma that played the main role for things to come. In his artistic masterpiece and the landmark of his career, Gotami Vihara, Keyt’s artistic creation is no doubt influenced by the great Indian and Sri Lankan tradition of sculpture and painting. It is a superb transformation of stone sculpture into wall paintings harmoniously blended to create a new technique which is oriental in the full sense of the word. It is definitely not a complete break with the style and compositional methods of traditional art or even a departure from conventional subject-matter as some art critics claim. The conventions of Sri Lankan classical fresco paintings as well as the mediaeval Kandyan temple paintings, stylised and frozen in form and colour, have been a major factor in the artistic language he has evolved for himself. But there is no denying the extensive influence of the Indian classical tradition, noticeable throughout his career, especially where he is preoccupied with striving for spiritual and lyrical expression or achieving spontaneous patterns of intense humanism. The richness of invention and decorative design reminiscent of the whole history of Indian classical painting and sculpture are never absent in his work."

He was guided in the task by scholar monk Telwatte Amarawansa Nayaka Thera. It was not a difficult task for Keyt to work with him because of his close association with monks of the Malwatte Vihara. An architect by the name of Andrew Boyd had done the walls for the murals to be painted. It is said that Keyt did not do any sketches before doing the murals. He had outlined the walls with burnt sienna (a fine orange-red pigment used in oil and water colour painting) and later added colours to the line drawings at the request of the Nayaka Thera. The lines had also been thickened. The murals trace the entire life of the Buddha from the time the Bodhisatva was invited by the gods to be born in the human world right up to the passing away, in a unique style typical of the artist. These depict the invitation by the gods, the dream of Queen Mahamaya showing a white elephant hovering round her, the birth of Prince Siddhartha, the ‘vap magul’ (ploughing) ceremony, his skills in archery, marriage ceremony, married life with Princess Yasodara, pleasures in the palace with girls dancing, his disgust with worldly life, the four omens which prompted the Prince to leave the palace, the great renunciation, crossing the river Anoma with Channa on Kanthaka’s back, donning the robes, Enlightenment and incidents in Buddha’s life. Each mural is six feet three inches high and they cover the walls of the simple ‘budu-ge’. Each episode merges with the other just as the mass composition of the grand old masters of the famous Ajanta caves in India or Polonnaruwa.

George Keyt - Paintings

He started exhibiting in the 1920s. The 1930's saw him preoccupied with the depiction of episodes from the Buddhist Jataka or Birth stories, culminating in the representation of the life and times of the Buddha on the walls of the circumambulatory shrine room of Gautami Vihara in Borella in 1940. At the same time he was also exposed to the influence of Western art, in particular the early cubist landscapes of Picasso and Braque, as well as Picasso's distortion of the human figure. It was Keyt's unique achievement to fuse these influences into a new artistic vocabulary. In 1954, his work was exhibited at the ICA (London) by Sir Herbert Read, and afterwards the exhibition travelled to the Art Institute of Rotterdam. His work is to be found in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the British Museum, as well as various public collections in India and Srilanka. Keyt continued to live in Kandy in between going to India, which he considered as his spiritual home. Beginning in the 1920s, Keyt held over thirty exhibitions before his death on 31 July 1993. The artist passed away in Colombo in 1993. He was honoured with the release of a stamp on 24 April 2001 to mark his birth centenary. It depicted the Keyt painting-Hansa Jataka, done in 1952 and now hanging in the Presidential Secretariat.

Text Reference:
Excerpts from the articles Gotami Vihara by Gaveshaka; In South Asia, a Twist on Picasso’s Legacy by Austin Considine ; Gotama Buddha Murals by Prof.Anuradha Seneviratna


  • Order of the British Empire (declined by the artist), 1950
  • Honorary Doctor of Litt, University of Sri Lanka Paradeniya, 1968
  • Award for Services to the Nation in the Field of Art, Ceylon Society of Art, 1970


  • George Keyt ‘A Centennial Anthology’
  • Buddha to Krishna: Life and Times of George Keyt
  • George Keyt: A Life in Art
  • George Keyt: A Felicitation Volume
  • Recent Work: Selected Poems and some previously Unexhibited Work
  • George Keyt Drawings
  • Cultural Encounters and Homoeroticism on Sri Lanka: Sex and Serendipity
  • George Keyt: Interpretations

Top 10 Auction Records

Title Price Realized
Gopika Vastra Paharana GBP 109,875
Mahesha Mardini GBP 107,475
Bhima and Jarasandha USD 147,750
Untitled (Reflection) INR 7,425,000
Courtship GBP 61,875
Untitled GBP 57,600
Aligana (The Embrace) USD 68,750
Untitled (Two Women amid Plants) USD 68,750
The Reapers USD 60,000
Lover’s Meeting GBP 37,500