Painted in 1920 during the formative years of Mahmoud Saïd's career as a painter, Portrait of Mme Sherifa Riad is one of the first twenty works ever painted by the artist. Mahmoud Saïd developed his artistic training in Italian painter Arturo Zanieri's studio from 1915 until 1918. Among Saïd's fellow artists who trained with Zanieri at the same time, were Giuseppe Sebasti and Ahmed Rassem, an art critic who wrote the first book in French on Mahmoud Saïd in 1937.
Ahmed Rassem was Saïd's cousin and is also related to the present sitter, Mrs. Sherifa Riad, born Rassem. The first known portrait painted by Saïd, dated 1914, depicts Ahmed Rassem. Executed with large expressionistic brushstrokes of striking bold colours, the sitter's facial features are almost caricature-like. This 1914 portrait of the artist's close friend and fellow painter contrasts with the severity and seriousness of Portrait of Mme Sherifa Riad, as Saïd adapts his brushstrokes and palette to his sitter. Sherifa Riad was Mahmoud Saïd's mother-in- law. She was part of the Egyptian upper class, married Mahmoud Pasha Riad and had one son and five daughters. One of the latter was Samiha Riad who married Mahmoud Saïd only two years after this portrait was painted, explaining why Saïd's rendering of his future mother-in-law is very conventional. Opting for a much more classical style, reminiscent of Arturo Zanieri's academicism, Saïd represents her with a delicately executed veil, wearing a traditional black abaya and sitting in an ornate antique chair. The distance and lack of emotion between Saïd and his sitter in Portrait of Mme Sherifa Riad is particularly noticeable when compared to the portrait he painted of his mother a year later. Although both women seem to melt in the background, the chiaroscuro effect in Ma Mère is much more dramatic than in the present lot, enhancing the existing intimacy between the artist and his sitter. Portrait of Mme Sherifa Riad follows more rigorously the artistic norms of portraiture that Saïd would have studied during his European travels between 1919 and 1921. Combining the grandeur of Renaissance portraiture with the abstract brushstrokes of nineteenth century artists such as Edouard Manet, this work is an exceptional example of Saïd's personal assimilation of Western art.
Mahmoud Saïd painted many portraits of various female sitters, whether they be close relatives, friends or servants, yet there are only a handful that wear a veil, which in most cases are unidentified women from the streets or strange caricature-like women. In these later paintings of mysterious women, Saïd uses the veil to enhance their beauty and seductiveness. In Portrait of Mme Sherifa Riad, the veil acts not only as the inevitable social barrier between the painter and sitter, but it is also a sign of respect from the artist towards his mother-in-law as the veil metaphorically becomes a protective shield against the viewer's gaze. Through its formal and conventionalised representation, Portrait of Mme Sherifa Hassan Rassem appears to stand for the older traditional generation of Egyptians, as opposed to the dynamic, Westernised and open-minded new generation, that Saïd also embodied in other later family portraits such as that of Mme Ismaïl Mazloum or Mme Saïd Zulficar, both painted in 1957.