Nicolai Fechin's Portraits from Life

By David C. Hunt



Under Repin's guidance, Fechin completed several large-scale historical paintings in St. Petersburg. After about 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.

After traveling in Siberia with a geologist friend in the summer of 1904, Fechin spent the following summer visiting the smaller villages in the vicinity of Kazan to observe and record the everyday life of the local peasant farmers. His fascination with rural customs and native people found expression again some twenty years later among the indigenous inhabitants of northern New Mexico and again in Southeast Asia.

Fechin graduated from the academy in St. Petersburg in 1908, having been awarded a scholarship that enabled him to travel outside Russia to visit museums and art galleries in Austria, Germany, Italy, and France. Returning to Kazan from Paris in the late fall of 1909, he accepted a full-time position as an instructor at the local art school. In 1910 he won a gold medal for painting at the annual International Exhibition in Munich and was invited to show in the International Exhibition held at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that same year. Here his work came to the attention of New York art patron W. S. Stimmel, through whom Fechin began selling paintings in the United States.

In 1913 Fechin married Alexandra Belkovitch, the teenaged daughter of the director of the art school in Kazan. In 1914 the couple's only child, Eya, was born. Fechin's small but steady income from teaching was interrupted at this time by the outbreak of World War I. The family soon moved to Vasilievo, thirty miles from Kazan, where Alexandra's father had purchased a house for them.

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. The Bolshevik government confiscated the properties that Alexandra had inherited from her family. Returning to Kazan, Fechin continued to teach at the school under steadily worsening conditions until 1920 when the arrival of representatives of the American Relief Administration caused him to think seriously about leaving Russia for good.

In 1922 he resumed correspondence with his American friend Stimmel, who initiated the process that eventually enabled the Fechins to immigrate to the United States. Stimmel meanwhile arranged for the sale of Fechin's work and set up a line of American credit for the artist with the proceeds. After many delays, caused for the most part by governmental red tape, the Fechins arrived in New York City on August 1, 1923. At forty-two years of age, having left everything he had ever known, Fechin faced the uncertain prospect of creating a new life in a new country.

With the help of friends and patrons such as Stimmel and architect 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 Galley downtown. In 1925 he took time off from a demanding schedule to visit California with his wife and daughter.

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, himself an English expatriate who had traveled widely, recommended to Fechin that he visit the West and experience the "real" America. In 1927 the Fechins moved to Taos, New Mexico, where they rented an apartment 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.

When Fechin arrived in Taos, several New York artists had visited or resided in the area, including John Marin, Robert Henri, Andrew Dasburg, and Marsden Hartley. Nearly all of the original members of the Taos Society of Artists regarded themselves as sophisticated "modern" painters. Fechin's background, however, was very different from theirs in its rural associations and uniquely Russian focus.

As he 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.



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