Georges Hanna Sabbagh was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1887. After completing his schooling at the Collège Jésuite de la Sainte Famille in Cairo, he was sent by his father to Paris to study law at age 19. Sabbagh eventually withdrew from law school to study art. He began frequenting Lévy-Dhurmer’s studio in 1910 and later enrolled at the Académie Ranson. By 1930 he became a French citizen and was awarded the Legion of Honor for his work. 

Growing up in a wealthy Catholic family of Syro-Lebanese descent, Sabbagh was exposed to French culture early on and had no trouble entering the world of Parisian ateliers. At the Académie Ranson, he studied under painters of the Nabi movement, such as Paul Sérusier and Maurice Denis. Les Nabis, who took their name from the Arabic word for “prophet,” were an influential group of French artists who sought to radically redefine art, insisting that painting should involve a synthesis of symbols and metaphors instead of merely depicting nature in the straightforward manner of the Impressionists. In this way, they played a crucial role in the development of symbolism, abstraction, and other hallmarks of early modernism in French art. During his training in Paris, he also met and grew close to Agnès Humbert, a watercolor painter, art historian, and later a member of the French Resistance during World War II. The two were married from 1916 to 1934. 

Maurice Denis had a particular impact on Sabbagh’s flair for symbolism and intimism. Sabbagh made regular visits to the Nabi artist’s home in Perros-Guirec, Brittany, and became inspired by the northwestern region’s rocky landscapes and gloomy skies. This topography differed significantly from what he had known in Egypt and Paris, and he incorporated his new experiences of nature into his work in the form of rough brushstrokes and a somber pallet. Sabbagh also took on avant-gardist trends and became inspired by Cubism. His famous Synthèse de Ploumanac’h (1920) indicates how he absorbed elements of multiple contemporaneous artistic movements without restraining himself to a predefined aesthetic. His Nabi training is discernible in this painting, which marks Sabbagh’s foray into painting nude, bathing women; for example, it nods to Paul Cézanne, a significant figure of influence to Les Nabis. It also displays an investment in realism, however, as well as interest in Cubist abstraction and dismantling figures.

As part of a more playful homage to Cézanne, Sabbagh painted his version of The Card Players in 1918. He placed himself at a table with Cézanne and Van Gogh and made his hand visible to communicate confidence and power to the viewer, even amongst established masters of his medium.

Sabbagh also drew inspiration from contemporaries like Felix Vallotton, whose refined and unembellished nude portraits inspired him when the two worked together in 1916. Sabbagh’s portraits are almost as imposing as his rocks, evoking both power and softness. Friendships with artists such as Amedeo Modigliani, Jules-Emile Zingg, and Yves Alix nourished Sabbagh’s intellect and developed his deeply personal painting style. In 1917 he held his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Chéron in Paris, which marked the beginning of the artist’s institutional career. His family portraits were particularly hailed, and his works soon filled numerous salons and galleries. In 1933, Sabbagh was appointed the president of the painting section of the Salon d’Automne in Paris. 

Described by critics as the “Egyptian branch” of the École de Paris, Sabbagh remained known by the French as an Egyptian despite his Syro-Lebanese heritage and French training. After his mother passed in 1920, he returned to Egypt for the first time since moving to France. This visit led to two years of rediscovery in which he drew inspiration from the landscapes of his homeland. Sabbagh regularly visited Egypt after returning to Paris, and in 1929 began working out of his own Cairo studio.

At the height of his success in France in the 1930s, Sabbagh settled in Cairo, where he painted typical Egyptian scenes and landscapes while avoiding Orientalist tendencies. Indeed, in contrast to the romanticizing impulses of Orientalism, Sabbagh became known for the quality, realism, and raw authenticity of his portraits. In 1939 he began teaching at the School of Fine Art in Cairo and did not move back to France until the end of World War II. These years allowed Sabbagh to find himself and develop a unique style after having absorbed the influences of various movements, including Cubism, Fauvism, and Expressionism. 

Like many artists of his generation, Sabbagh faded from public view after the war. He passed suddenly in 1951 while putting together a retrospective exhibition. His children and grandchildren took charge of honoring his memory soon after by organizing several retrospectives as well as a monograph dedicated to the late artist.