Following the success of its sale of Mahmoud Saïd's Négresse aux bracelets in October 2015 (price realized: $665,000), Christie's Dubai is proud to present two further exceptional paintings from the collection of Hussein Bek Saïd, amongst which this breathtaking view of the Nile at El Derr, located in Lower Nubia. Hussein was the artist's only brother, besides his three sisters, Zeinab, Nahed and Badiha, the latter having died unexpectedly at a very young age. Hussein worked at Studio Misr, Egypt's leading film production studio since 1936, that remained Hollywood's counterpart for more than three decades. Mahmoud Saïd painted his brother's portrait, wearing a pilot's outfit in 1923, the year following La cathédrale de Lausanne (lot 120, sale 1242) was painted, as well as the portrait of Hussein and Indji Hanem Zulficar's son Mohamed, in 1945.
Le Nil à El Derr stands out from Mahmoud Saïd's oeuvre as one of the most beautiful Nile scenes he painted, characterized by the warm light emanating from its complex color scheme and by the lyricism of its simplified composition. Saïd painted several Nile scenes from various areas of Egypt, from Aswan to Béni Hassan, from Luxor to Karnak, yet the present work is the only known painting depicting El Derr and is his earliest large-scale view of the Nile. Many of his 'Nile-scapes' are of relatively small format, and often, Saïd's Nile compositions feature figures and sail boats, that are both given more or less prominent roles in the painting. Several of these works also hint to surrounding archeological sites, such as in Le Nil à Béni Hassan, or as evident in the present work. El Derr is renowned for its 'speos' or rock temple that was built within the rock during the 19th dynasty by Pharaoh Ramses II. Writer and historian Nicolas Grimal claims that the temple 'consisted of a sequence of two hypostyle halls (probably preceded by a forecourt and a pylon) leading to a triple sanctuary where a cult of statues of Ramesses II, Amon-Re, Ra-Horakhty and Ptah was celebrated' (Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt, London, 1992, p. 259). Although historians disagree on the exact date of El Derr Temple's construction, there is no doubt that it was an important cult site during the Pharaonic era, which Mahmoud Saïd pays homage to in his luminous rendering of his Nile scene in El Derr.
In this painting, Mahmoud Saïd includes one of his beloved motifs, the quintessentially Egyptian vessels called feluccas, peacefully floating on the Nile with their abstract triangular sails. The feluccas are the main characters of the scene, casting a shadow on the actual human figures, whose significance is purely decorative rather than meaningful. Saïd subtly plays with the mirroring effects of the water, delicately blending in the reflections of each element from his composition, with the bright beige and brown tones from the El Derr rock temple pouring into the Nile, as well as the white touches from the felucca sails and the olive green of the trees along the Nile riverbanks. These thick touches of various pigments that masterfully achieve the effect of the water's transparence due to Saïd's skillful color combinations underline the calmness and almost stillness of the scene represented, and soon became one of the Alexandrian artist's signature techniques. Lever de soleil sur le Nil of 1945 is comparable in terms of subject matter, style, technique and format to Le Nil à El Derr, yet the overall light effects in both works are radically different. The former is dominated by cool blue and soft purple tones through which a radiant sun pierces through to bring a fresh morning light to the bustle of a daily Nile scene. The blue sky and the green plain of fertile land in the lower right corner of the El Derr landscape are completely overruled by the earthy sepia, ochre and beige tones of Lower Nubia's topography, allowing the color of the stones of El Derr Temple to permeate through the entire composition.
In terms of the painting's structure, Saïd emphasized the linear movement of the feluccas through the horizontality of the composition that is occasionally interrupted by the curves of the feluccas' bulging sails or by the suggestive blocks of rock alluding to the archeological site of El Derr. Painted in 1933, it seems that Said was not as rigid with his composition than he was for later comparable works, such as Le Nil à Béni Hassan of 1951. As opposed to the El Derr landscape, the latter's structural lines are strengthened by the verticals created by the feluccas' sails and the palm trees' trunks, and by the curved diagonals from the Béni Hassan rocks, replicating the movement emerging from the felucca's bulging sail. All these compositional lines converge at the top of the sailboat's mast in the foreground, creating a peaceful balance within the composition yet at the same time breathing in a mystical dynamism to this scene on the Nile, very characteristic of Mahmoud Saïd's pictorial structure. The golden light emanating from Le Nil à El Derr simultaneously achieves a mystical dynamism and an eternal standstill of this Nile scene, in view of paying tribute to Egypt's Golden Age and celebrating the Nubian people's activities, achievements and heritage. This blend of past and present, commonly seen throughout Saïd's oeuvre, enables him to capture the essence of his country's history and people, and to emphasise their resistance to all forms of modernisation in the context of a changing nation seeking independence from colonial powers. Just like the El Derr temple is embedded within the soil and rock of the Nubian land, the people are deeply-rooted in their history and cultural heritage. The reflection of the temple and land into the waters of the Nile, and the flecks of colour reflecting from the clothes of the people in the feluccas, combine all these various elements into one, embodying the intrinsic values of Egypt.