Along with Hag Aly (1924) and L’homme du Mariout (1934), Vieux Cheikh, painted in 1927, is one of Saïd’s most hyper-realist portraits, in terms of its facial features but also in terms of its expressionist power. All three depict old Egyptian men and the present portrait is one of the few remaining paintings from the private collection of Hussein Bek Saïd. 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.
This almost life-size bust catches the eye with its unusual depth that is enhanced by the accordion-like architecture framing the old man’s face, characterised by its minute details where each wrinkle seems to stand for a story and reflects an accumulation of experience and wisdom. By 1927, Saïd had portrayed many friends and family members, experimenting with different pictorial means to capture the essence of his sitter, ranging from broad Impressionistic brushstrokes to daring Expressionistic brushstrokes, and from ‘chiaroscuro’ technique to an almost caricature-like style.
In Vieux Cheikh, the Alexandrian painter seems to have combined all these experiments to achieve such a lively presence for his sitter. He used layers of short, smooth and shiny brushstrokes to render the old man’s jagged face, accentuating his wrinkles through dramatic lighting contrasts obtained from an unparalleled mix of a rich variety of warm, earthy tones for the complexion. Saïd intentionally dedicated this intricate painterly labour solely to the sitter’s face, opting for a simpler and almost abstract approach for the old man’s clothes, hat and for the background’s architecture. The colour tones of those other compositional elements are much more subdued, being dominated by a pale grey-blue pigment. By purging any superfluous detail from the rest of the painting, Saïd draws the viewer’s attention to focus on the Vieux Cheikh’s face. Just as the background’s alignment of columns takes the viewer’s eye deep into the canvas, Saïd excavates his sitter’s soul and exposes all of the old man’s feelings, experiences, wisdom, history and story in his facial features. Metaphorically, Saïd’s portrayal of this wise Egyptian man embodies and reminisces on his nation’s past, in that each wrinkle bears witness to a fragment of Egypt’s history.