Nicolai Fechin is one of the most important portrait painters of the 20th Century. In addition to his portraits, his paintings of Native Americans and of the New Mexico desert landscape are considered among his best works.
About Nicolai Fechin
Nicolai Fechin (pronounced “fay-shin”) was born in 1881 in the town of Kazan, Russia. His father was highly skilled in woodworking and whom Fechin received early instruction in drawing and sculpting. In 1895, at the age of 13, Fechin enrolled in the Art School of Kazan, a branch of the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. Operated by graduates of the Academy, the school promoted individual development within an academic framework of Russian literature, art history, and architecture.
After graduating from the Kazan school in 1900, Fechin entered the Imperial Academy of Arts. There he studied under the tutelage of painter Ilya Repin, whose highly popular works emphasized the realistic values of northern European masters such as Rembrandt. After 1904, he began to concentrate increasingly on portraiture. Fechin also began to experiment with using the palette knife to apply color to large areas of the painting surface and to emphasize gesture and movement.
In 1911, Fechin married Alexandra Belkovitch, the daughter of the director of the art school in Kazan. In 1914 the couple’s only child, Eya, was born. WW1 broke out, then, following the abdication of the Czar and the establishment of a revolutionary government in Moscow, Russia entered a period of social upheaval and intermittent civil war. The collapse of law and order and widespread shortages of food, medicines, and other necessities rendered Russian life chaotic. Fechin’s parents died of typhoid fever. Fechin moved his family to Vasilievo, thirty miles from Kazan, where Alexandra’s father had purchased a house for them. Living in the country was somewhat safer for them and gave Alexandra the opportunity to grow some vegetables and have chickens. Fechin would teach during the week and travel to see his family on weekends.
Conditions at the school began to deteriorate. There was no heat in the buildings and painting supplies became increasingly hard to find or of poor quality. In 1920, Fechin met Americans with the American Relief Administration who had come to Russia to distribute food supplies. They told him how much better life in the US could be for his family and his career.
New York Scene
With the help of his friends and patrons such as Stimmel and financier John Burnham, who at one time owned the largest collection of Fechin’s work, Fechin settled into a studio apartment off Central Park and almost immediately obtained a number of important portrait commissions. He also began teaching classes at the New York Academy of Art and exhibiting at the National Academy of Design, where in 1924 he won the coveted Thomas Proctor prize for portraiture. Soon after, he began exhibiting regularly at the Grand Central Art Gallery downtown.
Despite his growing reputation and the obvious advantages of working in New York, Fechin found it hard to adjust to the pace of life in the metropolis. During his fourth year in America, he developed tuberculosis and on his doctor’s advice began a search for a more healthful climate. Fellow artist John Young-Hunter, an English expatriate who traveled widely, recommended that Fechin visit the West and experience “real” America. In 1927 the Fechins moved to Taos, New Mexico, where they rented a house from socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan, who at the time was very active in the Taos art community and had encouraged a number of painters and writers to settle there.
New Mexico Influence
As Fechin had been intrigued with non-European cultures in Russia, so he was now attracted to the native people of New Mexico. The region’s rugged, unspoiled scenery also appealed to his love of nature and in some respects reminded him of his homeland. Inspired by these recurring connections with Russia, Fechin produced a large body of work during the six years that he lived with his family in Taos.
Fechin apparently did not realize that the move to America might be permanent and often said that he intended to return to Russia one day when conditions improved. Meanwhile, he created something of a Russian atmosphere in his home in Taos, where he spent the late afternoons or evenings carving furniture and sculpting decorative motifs in the woodwork and blending Russian design elements such as triptych windows and intricately carved doors with traditional Southwestern adobe construction. Woodworking came easily to Fechin, who as a youth had worked in his father’s shop in Kazan carving and painting icons and decorating cabinetry.
While Fechin often kept to himself and rarely socialized, fellow artist John Young-Hunter was a good friend. Training, as well as temperament, tended to separate Fechin from his peers. He found it difficult to express himself in English and in particular to talk about art; he believed that what he had to say was nonverbal and best described in his pictures. When Fechin took time off from work, more often than not it was to try his luck at fishing.
Alexandra and Eya
Fechin’s sojourn in Taos came to an end in 1933 when Alexandra filed for divorce. Leaving her with the house, Fechin took Eya and returned to New York City. Father and daughter later moved to California at the urging of Earl Stendhal, who represented Fechin through his gallery in Los Angeles.
Eya wrote an article that appeared in the November 1984 issue of America West magazine entitled “Teenage Memories of Taos.” In it, she related many incidents of her life at a time when, as she says, she passed from “being my mother’s little girl…to my father’s closest friend.”
Renting a succession of studios in Pasadena and Hollywood, Fechin continued to work and teach as well as travel, visiting Mexico in 1936 and Bali in 1938. In 1947 he moved for the last time to Santa Monica, California, where on October 5, 1955, he died quietly in his sleep. Eya returned her father’s remains to Russia in 1976.
Thank you to the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House for the description of Nicolai Fechin.
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