Nicolai Fechin's Portraits from Life

By David C. Hunt



In 1928 he purchased an adobe house from a local doctor on land adjacent to the Luhan property. The sale included a separate building at the back of the lot that Fechin turned into a studio. Here he worked nearly every day for the greater part of the day. Over the next several years Fechin completely remodeled and enlarged the original house to suit his and Alexandra's needs.

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.

Fechin seems to have had little in common with the other artists in Taos and almost never socialized with them, though he and John Young-Hunter, who maintained a studio in Taos, remained good friends. 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 he took time off from work, more often than not it was to try his luck at fishing. At such times he preferred solitude to the company of others.

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 Stendahl, who owned and operated a gallery and art school in Los Angeles.

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.

In the 1970s, Eya returned to Taos and began the restoration of her childhood home. She opened it to the public in 1981 under the auspices of the Fechin Institute, which she had established to honor her father. Her mother continued to live in the house until her death in 1983. Following Eya's death in 2002, the house passed to a daughter and son-in-law of Eya's; they sold it to a private foundation. Today it is maintained and operated as The Taos Museum of Art for Artists and Their Patrons.

Eya wrote an article that appeared in the November 1984 issue of American 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."

In the transcript of an interview preserved in the library of the Stark Museum of Art, she had more to say about her father as an artist and recalled that he had difficulty in adjusting to "American-style" art:

He didn't like the power of art dealers and patrons. He believed that American artists were too fearful of losing control of their ideas and potential revenue.. .fostering a serious lack of exchange of ideas among artists.... New Mexico encouraged him to paint landscapes. Like all the Taos artists, he appreciated the light of Taos.... He thought Pueblo Indians possessed the same spirit as well as other qualities of the Tartars of his homeland. He always painted his Indians as they were, never creating artificial scenes with nonauthentic props.

According to his daughter, Fechin began signing his name in English almost as soon as he arrived in the States, though he dismissed signatures as unimportant and said that a viewer should recognize his work by its execution. He always prepared his own canvases and seldom made preliminary sketches; most of his subjects were taken directly from life. He also maintained that the strongest and most lasting influences on any artist were those associated with the country of his birth. Perhaps with Fechin this proved to be true.

Eya returned her father's remains to Russia in 1976. Today the largest collection of his work is to be found at the Fechin Center in Kazan, which honored his memory with a retrospective exhibition in 1981 celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth.



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