Nicolai Fechin's Portraits from Life
By David C. Hunt
Most gallery visitors find something to intrigue or delight them in the works of Nicolai Fechin. The brilliance of his painting style and the bold imagery one encounters in his drawings are undeniably arresting. His exuberant use of line and color to define form creates an immediate impression of energy and purpose. This attractive dynamism can be found in the series of Fechin portraits currently on exhibit at the Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas.
In his representations of people, one sees a remarkable ability to capture the essence of personality in paint or on paper, along with an intensity of feeling that reveals much about the artist's attitudes toward art and life. In pencil and charcoal drawings, oils, and sculpted forms, Fechin's work brings to the viewer distinctly individual likenesses with an evocative flair that places him among the best portraitists of any time or place.
The Stark collection includes sixty-eight examples of Fechin's work, the majority of which are oil paintings executed between 1921 and 1949. Twenty-seven works represent individual portraits rendered in oil, pencil, charcoal, wood, or bronze. Texas collector H. J. Lutcher Stark acquired all but three drawings between 1958 and 1962. The museum purchased the additional drawings in 1987.
Fechin produced the majority of these portraits between 1927 and 1932 while he lived in Taos, New Mexico. Taken directly from life, they demonstrate a flexibility of technique in adapting method and medium to characterizations of the various cultures and nationalities he encountered in the American Southwest. The Spanish-speaking population, the native inhabitants of the Taos Pueblo, the neighboring Anglo ranchers, and European immigrants like himself are presented in a range of expressive images. One young man's face so intrigued Fechin that he rendered it in a charcoal drawing, an oil painting, a wood carving, and a bronze casting, all of which are preserved in the Stark collection.
Fechin depicted himself in a pencil drawing that is included in the Stark inventory, along with another drawing of his daughter, Eya, as a young woman. Fechin's father appears in two works: a charcoal portrait and an oil painting representing a barge captain, for which he served as the model. Fechin's wife and his daughter as an infant appear together in a painting executed in hasty brushstrokes and muted tones. Fechin painted many women and children and varied his approach to each according to what seemed appropriate to the mood or character of his subject.
Fechin was born in 1881 in the town of Kazan, Russia. His father was a highly skilled craftsman in wood and metal from whom Pechin received instruction in drawing and sculpting. In 1895 Fechin enrolled in the Art School of Kazan, a branch of the Imperial Academy of Art 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.
Graduating from the Kazan school in 1900, Fechin subsequently entered the Imperial Academy, where he came under the tutelage of painter Ilya Repin, whose highly popular works emphasized the realistic values of northern European masters such as Rembrandt. An introduction to the collections of the Hermitage Museum acquainted Fechin with European Impressionism, with its emphasis on visual experience based on the observation of nature.
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