This painting is a delightful example epitomising Saïd’s depictions of ‘plebeian’ women, and an exciting rediscovery within Mahmoud Saïd’s oeuvre. Up until now, Hanem was only known through a poor quality black and white image but shortly after the Mahmoud Saïd catalogue raisonné was published, it emerged from a private collection in Canada. It was therefore publicly exhibited for the first time since 1960 on the occasion of the Mahmoud Saïd catalogue raisonné book launch at Christie's Dubai last March 2017. The owner originally lived in Egypt until the late 1960s and moved to Canada thereafter, where the painting has safely remained ever since.
The woman’s dark golden skin, her black frizzy hair neatly wrapped in a green headscarf and her profoundly Egyptian features, such as the protruding cheekbones and the pointed nose, suggest that the model was perhaps Nubian. She appears to be the same female sitter as in another portrait painted by the artist the same year, titled Femme à la perle, which is part of the collection of the Mahmoud Saïd Museum in Alexandria. A year later, Mahmoud Saïd painted two portraits of a dark-skinned model called Nabawiya yet the Nubian features of the latter are more pronounced than that of the woman in the present painting, whose identity is not revealed by the artist. Saïd chose a three-quarter-view profile to paint his model’s portrait, which allowed him to fully capture his sitter’s facial expression, as she humbly lowers her head and pensively looks down. She seems to be absorbed in her own thoughts, shying away from both the viewer’s and the artist’s gaze and almost unaware of the painter’s presence. This portrait bears witness to Saïd’s fascination with Flemish and Italian Primitives, praising their ability to depict what he called ‘the penetrating humanity’ of sitters whilst at the same time producing simplified and beautifully harmonised compositions. Saïd perfectly masters this approach as he excavates his sitter’s inner soul in order to express through his brushstrokes, colours and composition the woman’s deep emotions. He achieves the balance of his portrait through his palette of colours, creating a lively contrast between the sitter’s golden bronze complexion and her vibrant turquoise dress heightened with red stripes and a fancy white collar, repeating the colour of the sofa on which she is sitting. This exquisite combination of colour tones is reminiscent of a painting of another ‘plebeian’ woman, Tricoteuse, painted in 1947, previously in Dr. Mohammed Saïd Farsi’s collection and sold by Christie’s Dubai in 2013.
When Ms. Minou Assabghy interviewed Mahmoud Saïd in the early 1950s, Tricoteuse was one of the paintings that had caught her attention, recalling that '[Saïd] is fond of the colour green. Whether the greens are raw or subdued, daring or knowledgeable, his greens are definitively his. Look at this portrait of a village girl, whose bright orange headscarf and knitting contrast with the blouse painted with a strange turquoise-green colour - look at how he succeeded in finding a very soft, subdued and almost colourless dark green background, that slightly reduces the effect of the turquoise-green colour, without smothering it'. (M. Assabghy, "Au pays de la couleur avec Mahmoud Saïd", in Le Progrés Egyptien,Cairo 1951; translated from French).
Similar comments could apply to the present work, although here, Saïd selected a headscarf of the same turquoise-green colour as her clothes and as the sofa, instead of the fiery orange headscarf of the woman knitting, and he opted for a blue-grey background instead of the ‘colourless dark green’ pigment used in Tricoteuse. In that way, he chose to focus on the more subtle contrast between the warm tones of the sitter’s skin and her clothes in the 1951 painting, rather than radically opposing two large areas of complementary colours, the orange headscarf and the green dress as he had done in Tricoteuse. Instead, he ingeniously intertwined the turquoise-green dress with vibrant orange-red stripes lined with white in Hanem’s portrait. In doing so, Saïd somehow illuminates each pigment, fully exploiting their power of colour and radiance, as he accentuates the brightness of the turquoise-green and that of the orange-red pigment, and succeeds in the rendering of the sitter’s raven-black and frizzy hair through a few daring yet discrete touches of cobalt blue. Saïd achieved harmony through pattern and repetition of colour in this portrait of an anonymous ‘plebeian’ woman, almost making her blend in with the background as if she was part of the décor. Paradoxically, the sitter may have been a servant or a girl from the streets, whom Saïd most probably dressed up in these bright fancy clothes. Yet the artist’s attempt to visually integrate her with the painting’s background metaphorically raises her above her usual social status and immortalises her beauty as an Egyptian woman, regardless of her social background.