'The Black Woman at the Window (1927) [sic] is an improved Haguer (1921) [sic], following the experience of the six most vibrant years that the Earth has known since several generations.'
(H. El Kayem, "Essai sur Mahmoud Saïd", in La Revue du Caire, June 1942; translated from French)
Christie's is proud to include in its sale two paintings by pioneer Modern Egyptian painter Mahmoud Saïd, from the 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. Mahmoud Saïd painted his brother's portrait, wearing a pilot's outfit in 1923, the same year Le port de la Canée was painted, as well as the portrait of Hussein and Indji Hanem Zulficar's son Mohamed, in 1945.
La Négresse aux Bracelets, executed in 1926, stands out as one of Saïd's most unique masterpieces in his oeuvre, both stylistically and compositionally, for its iconic subject yet unusual figure, for its impressive format and for Saïd's mastery in depicting his sitter with such honesty and humanity. In 1926, Saïd was barely thirty years old although he was already an established counselor at the Mixed Courts of Mansourah since 1922 complying with his family's wishes, he had studied art in prestigious Parisian schools followed by a culturally enriching European tour, and he had married Samiha Hanem Riad in 1922. Nonetheless, he seemed to have been psychologically affected not only by his inner struggle between his passion for art and the social constraints of him becoming a judge, but also, he was struck by typhoid around 1923-1924. According to the archives of his Belgian friend and writer Paul van der Borght, Saïd depicted himself during his recovery from that illness in his famous self-portrait that he titled The Apostle. Death seems to have haunted Saïd during the late 1920s as witnessed by the various tomb and cemetery scenes that he produced between 1926 and 1929. However, these dark thoughts did not stop him from producing his first female nude paintings, continuing to portray relatives and friends and pursuing his search for authentic Egyptian roots in painting female peasants and servants.
Therefore, as rightly mentioned above by Henri El Kayem, author of Mahmoud Saïd's first monograph in 1951, the years separating Sad's first portrait of an Egyptian plebeian woman, Haguer (1923) and La Négresse aux Bracelets, (1926) were unquestionably effervescent from a personal, professional and artistic point of view. Paradoxically, whilst some of Sad's 1920s paintings seem to have been inspired by the great masters of European art he had recently discovered in person, La Négresse aux Bracelets is unprecedented in terms of its iconography. Presenting a ground-breaking subject matter, it reveals the thread running through Mahmoud Sad's oeuvre, that of excavating the depths of the true Egyptian people. Saïd's black female sitter was most likely originally from Nubia, today's South Sudan that was part of Egypt at the time. Apart from another 1926 painting entitled La Fille l'Amphore and a 1935 painting of a nude black woman posing in front of a red background, housed by the Mahmoud Saïd Museum in Alexandria, this is the only time Sad painted a black woman. Her male counterparts seem to have been the doorman of the Saïd family, Osta Farag painted in 1921, and the black slave performing the ritual of the 'zar' in the Alexandrian master's 1939 composition of that title. This black, possibly Nubian, population was therefore significant for Saïd, epitomised by his liberal interpretation of the Adam and Eve iconography, in a painting of 1937 in which Adam, the father of mankind, is black. To some extent, Sad pays tribute to this long-standing and deeply-rooted Nubian civilisation in his paintings, in which honesty of human feelings and of appearance prevails. Slouching on a windowsill, La Négresse aux Bracelets turns her back to the bustling outside world, depicted in the upper left quadrant of the painting. Her piercing white eyes emerge from the darkness of her skin and from the depths of the room, shamelessly looking straight ahead to the beholder. Melancholically leaning her head in her hand, and leaning in turn her arm on her knee, Saïd emphasises the weight of her body that lolls against the wall. Whether she is bored or miserable, Sad's choice for her pose is ambiguous and opened to several interpretations of the scene. Like her earlier counterpart, Haguer, she may be resting from a hard day's work as servant in the house. Yet, unlike Haguer's conservative and monotonous rags, La Négresse aux Bracelets wears a revealing yellow-gold dress, hinting that she may be waiting for a visitor. One of her straps seems to be sliding off her right shoulder, whilst her unsophisticated pose is highly suggestive, pulling her dress up to her upper thighs. Saïd draws the viewer's gaze to the centre of the composition, which is also the core of the woman's body, by reflecting a dazzling light on the area of her golden dress that covers her bulging abdomen. The warm yellow colour tones of her clothes glow against her jet-black skin and are heightened by the dialogue of light reflections resulting from the bracelets' and anklets' glistening, answering to the gleam of light emanating from the jar on the left of the composition. The translucent blue of the woman's headdress counter-balances the gold-ochre tones that dominate the painting. Touches of that signature blue pigment have been carefully blended in some areas of her dark skin, reflecting on her cheeks and lips, as well as on her dress, jewels and on the bottom of the jar. The overall golden colour tones permeating through the composition seem to derive from that of the buildings and roads outside, whilst the blue pigment mirrors that of the radiant sky glaring in the background. Saïd hence visually blends his sitter with the architectural and natural surroundings, highlighting the Egyptian authenticity of this Nubian girl. Omitting any superfluous or
embellishing details, he represents this nameless plebeian girl with a natural pose and a weary yet seductive look. By portraying her with such unrivaled honesty, Saïd succeeds in grasping the essence of her beauty and of her identity through her facial expression and body language, in view of regenerating and perpetuating these pure and quintessentially Egyptian features. In his review of the exhibition that took place at Galerie Ramia in Alexandria, where La Négresse aux Bracelets was displayed, Etienne Mériel describes the 're-awakening of the ancient Egyptian race' that Saïd sought for in this masterpiece:
'Mahmoud Saïd exhibited a large black female figure, a strong and solid painting in which all the various qualities of the author stand out. The beauty of the 'lay-out' consists of the main subject matter taking up most of the space of the canvas and being completed by the landscape in the corner; the figure's pose and expression are that of a great master ... Mahmoud Saïd treated this figure with his usual means, with which he is now confident. He finds them through a deep self-examination and by looking at their possibilities, with a perfect knowledge of his temperament and maybe also with the desire to awaken - like Mokhtar did with sculpture - the dozing qualities of the ancient Egyptian race, his love for solid masses, his taste for things to be complete, lasting and resistant.'
(E. Mériel, "Expositions", in La Semaine Egyptienne, 21 December 1932; translated from French).