"In order to enjoy the paintings of Said, in order to feel the charm that emanates from his art, one must understand all that Oriental art encompasses in powerful subtlety."
(Ahmad Rassem, ed., Le Journal d'Un Peintre Raté, Cairo, 1943, p.49)
Nu au Collier de Perles is an exquisite example of Mahmoud Said's nudes, and a testament to his daring reverence of the female form.
Mahmoud Said was profoundly inspired by the female form, facilitated by his social standing, his celebration of the female nude was a brave move that broke absolutely with Egyptian artistic traditions. To him and his artistic milieu the Egyptian peasant represented the liberal future of Egypt, but Said's nudes are the continuation of an earlier tradition drawing on nineteenth century European paintings romanticising the Orient.
Said presents his interpretation of the Odalisque, the mysterious female of the Arab world hidden behind veils, that so inspired European painters of the nineteenth century. This painting is part of a body of work steeped in an earlier, foreign style, but unlike its predecessors draws not on fantasy but on fact. These nudes are a type of romantic realism entirely unique to Mahmoud Said, a bold and remarkable celebration of the female form for his time and place.
Said reveres his sitter by focusing on her form, her pose, her skin and face. He paints her as she is, an Egyptian woman with characteristic full lips, high cheekbones and dusky skin. Unlike his European predecessors who would place milk-white European models in an Oriental context by draping them in exotic silks and surrounding them with Islamic carpets in a thrilling, almost scandalous, interpretation of the everyday, here the artist chooses to highlight the Odalisque's command of her own sensuality without sacrificing the romance of her character.
The rich palette of this painting draws on the exotic colours of Egypt, accentuating Said's affinity to the distinctive colours of the Middle East. Orientalist painters, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, would travel and experiment for years to find this balance of colours, but for Said it was a natural development. Here he draws the composition together with an emerald green hinted at in his Odalisque's skin tones and reflected in the colour of her surroundings. His understanding of light and shadow, so idiosyncratic, is emphasised by the shadows across her body and face, and the distinctive luminosity of her skin.
Inspired simultaneously by Egypt and the Orientalists, and with a sincere reverence for the female form, Said was a master of fusion, and his nudes are a commanding combination of both the Oriental and the Occidental.
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