Ahmed Rassim cited in: Ahmed Rassim, Shadow: A Page From Modern Art, Cairo, 1936, n.p
With a successful career spanning forty-five years of his life, Egyptian artist Mahmoud Saïd remains a particularly prolific oil painter of his time. As an artist who was equally captivated by the glamour and modernity of Egypt, as he was to the country’s unchanging cultural aspects, Said would often return to these themes throughout his portfolio of works. Such themes are reminiscent of Orientalist artists that preceded him; namely his depiction of the Nile Valley and other Egyptian landscapes, female figures both clothed and nude, traditional dancers and musicians, as well as his interest in Islamic customs. Sensuality set within a strong compositional framework dominate his paintings, intensified by his meticulous attention to colour, form and detail. Thus, passion and self-discipline find a perfect harmony, which speaks to the very essence of his subjects.
Sotheby’s is honoured to present a rare and as yet unseen portrait by Mahmoud Saïd, entitled Portrait de Mme Batanouni Bey, a work which has remained in the privacy of the family since it was painted in 1923. Unseen by many, the beautiful sitter Ferdous Hamada – a cousin of Mahmoud Saïd – was born in 1902 in Alexandria, to Khalil Pacha Hamada and Zeinab Hanem Mazloum, who was Saïd’s great-aunt. Ferdous Hamada was married to Mr. Bahgat Batanouni in 1933. Unlike many of Saïd’s paintings, Portrait de Mme Batanouni Bey is combination of two paintings in one, with the portrait in the foreground and an Egyptian landscape in the background. As with many of his paintings of this theme, they “take their Egyptian-ness from the clarity of the weather and the transparency of the colors. With all living organisms, nothing disrupts from the clear vision seen by your eyes, neither dust nor gloom. He absorbs the colors of the Nile’s silt as part of his palette. The color is reflected on our eyes from the Egyptian rural landscape, which is constantly flooded by Nile water and from the vibrations of the sun light”. (Ahmed Rassim, p.21) Unmatched in comparison with the rest of Saïd’s oeuvre, the portrait is without a doubt unique. To be counted among the greatest portraits by the artist to be offered at auction, this luminous depiction of the quintessential Egyptian woman has never previously been exhibited.
As one of the fathers of the Egyptian modern art movement, Saïd is able to transport the viewer back in time. Born into an aristocratic Alexandrian family, Mahmoud Saïd was not predestined to become an artist. Saïd was the son of Mohammed Pasha Saïd, Egypt’s Prime Minister during the reign of King Fuad I, he later became uncle to Queen Farida, the first wife of King Farouk. Throughout his lifetime Saïd was incessantly engaged with the Egyptian gentry, further fueling his obsessive observation of local Egyptians, which was a stark contrast to the pseudo-European aristocracy that surrounded him. Saïd was trained in law; nonetheless, it was never his passion, but rather one that his father had chosen for him. In parallel to working in the Mixed Court Systems in Egypt, Saïd’s raw passion and unrelenting drive enabled him to maintain and further his art career. Finally in 1947, Mahmoud Saïd resigned from practicing law and dedicated himself to his true calling, painting and his rich painting style forever encapsulated the golden era of glamour pre-dating the 1952 revolution.
His initiation into the arts was under the tutelage of Italian artist Amelia Casonato Daforno, who was a student of the Florence Academy. His education continued with another Florentine artist Arturo Zanieri, under whom Saïd learned the classical methods of drawing. It was only in 1920 that he left for Paris to further pursue his artistic studies. Unlike other Egyptian artists of the time, Saïd enrolled in classes at his own expense, in particular at the Académie Julian in Paris. Academically trained, Saïd’s paintings didn’t diverge from the rote form of classic art. As opposed to the Parisian fashion of the time and the innovation of the impressionist 'en plein air' method of painting, Saïd remained dedicated to painting in his studio and producing veils of light without the assistance of the outdoors.
Ferdous, whose name means 'Paradise' in Arabic, was a lady of prominence in Alexandria, even serving as Queen Farida’s lady in waiting. A philanthropist by nature, she was one of the founders of the Red Crescent Society in Egypt, and spearheaded initiatives to improve orphanages and develop their financial sufficiency. Seated regally, Portrait de Mme Batanouni Bey shows Ferdous as a noblewoman, while retaining a connection to her Egyptian background. Elegantly reclining on a 'fishawy chair', which is ubiquitous to the Egyptian café culture, Ferdous embodies both the liberated Egyptian woman of the 1920s and the universal Art Deco style from the Belle Époque era of Alexandria. Ferdous was a pioneering and an independent woman. Saïd considered women to be a source of existential power as wives, as mothers, and as revolutionaries. As such, he represented them with reverence as symbols of Egypt's national identity. The painting captures the heritage and splendor of an era in Alexandria that was fast fading. It renders the viewer with nostalgia of the vibrant and cosmopolitan Alexandria of Mahmoud Saïd.
The beauty of the woman is unmistakably Egyptian, depicted with characteristic full lips, high cheekbones and dusky skin, imbued with a serene yet sensual sense of magnificence. Saïd’s masterful grasp of light is particularly evident in the distinctive luminosity of her skin. The rich palette of this painting draws on the exotic colours of Egypt, accentuating the artist's affinity for the distinctive colours of the Middle East. Indeed, the work cannot simply be said to be a portrait, as the background encapsulates all the components of Saïd’s celebrated landscapes – from the boats on the Nile to the traditional buildings.
Society portraits have been omnipresent across the world and throughout history. Portrait de Mme Batanouni Bey is one of the most emblematic examples of 20th Century Middle Eastern portraiture and expressionism. Mahmoud Saïd captures the true spirit of Egypt through his articulation of the elegance and quintessential Egyptian-ness of the sitter, while the background of the painting provides a gateway into the Egyptian paysage and the Nile, which remains unchanged by time. It brings together the entirety of Egypt and that is the consistent factor throughout. Portrait de Mme Batanouni Bey offers collectors access to two of Mahmoud Saïd’s strongest themes – the Egyptian countryside and the Egyptian woman. The color palette employed by Saïd in Portrait de Mme Batanouni Bey demonstrates a complete composition. The colours of Ferdous’s dress are a direct reflection of the Egyptian village on the Nile in the background. With a skewed sense of scale and distorted proportions of the sitter in relation to the background, there is an element of surrealism to the placement of Alexandria in the painting. With defined eyes, drawing from the Pharaonic heritage, and an Art Deco stylized dress, an ode to the period, Saïd attempts to present the sitter as a quintessential Egyptian modernized woman, in touch with her roots and worldliness. In this sense, his portraits "are full of utmost respect and spirit. Notwithstanding the sexiness of the sitter, no one can see any lewdness from the glaring stares from their eyes to the silent words un-uttered from their lips." (p. 22)
Romanticized or mimetic in its rendering, portraiture remains a deeply intimate gateway into a shared cultural history. Society portraits were essential and almost intrinsic in the need to preserve a tangible image of the face, particularly for individuals with elevated stature in society. Renaissance portraits, such as the Portrait of a Young Lady painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio from the 15th century shows a fashionable young lady with a city in the background. A two dimensional portrait, it lacks depth we see in Mahmoud Saïd’s Portrait de Mme Batanouni Bey. Despite being centuries apart and with evident cultural differences, both artists found inspiration in Flemish art, accentuating the depth of their portraits with a heavy emphasis on the background and a meticulous rendering of accessories on both sitters. Using feminine objects, such as the ring and the fan in Saïd’s Portrait de Mme Batanouni Bey, and the orange blossom and pendant in Portrait of a Young Lady by Ghirlandaio, both artists used objects to further draw out the femininity of their sitters.
Naturally, following its advent in the 19th century, photography became the most widely used medium for conveying and propagating national identity. Despite technological innovations, a long tradition of rendering tribes through portraiture allowed artists to imbue their rendition of portraits, allowing them to deviate from traditional practices. As demonstrated by Kees Van Dongen’s painting Fatimah Ismaël de Louxor painted in 1912, Van Dongen, like Saïd, was avant-garde in his artistic practice. Van Dongen traveled to Egypt in March 1913 where he discovered the violent combination of colour which subsequently drew him back towards Fauvism. As can be seen in Fatimah Ismaël de Louxor, his use of colour was an attempt to represent Egypt’s exoticism and vivaciousness. As opposed to Saïd’s Portrait de Mme Batanouni Bey and Portrait of a Young Lady painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Van Dongen uses a stark and plain background to further heighten the focus on the portrait, coming away from staged photographs with backdrops. Free from the need to beautify the sitter, which was standard practice prior to the 20th century, Van Dongen depicts Fatimah as minimal and simple, with her eyes dictating the focal point.
Albeit from the same period, Van Dongen’s portrait of Fatimah Ismaël de Louxor and Saïd’s Portrait de Mme Batanouni Bey lie in sharp contrast in their modernist technique and execution. Mahmoud Saïd continues to be remembered as "the leader of this Renaissance movement… the strongest painter [through] his capacity to invent and his departure from lewdness seen in Orientalism and imitation… capable of portraying the soul of his sitter and transferring their desires and feelings" (Sanad Basta – lawyer and artist quoted in: Al Ahram, 1933, the leading Egyptian newspaper, and in Ahmed Rassim, p. 36.) It is this mastery that is integral to this legendary Egyptian’s artist’s Portrait de Mme Batanouni Bey, rendering it as undoubtedly a magnificent example of the artist’s iconic portraits, and with such an impeccable provenance, it is certainly a collector's piece.
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