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Vaired, Unrestrained, Ruthless and Superb: The Mastery of Nicolai Fechin

May 20, 2013


 Varied Unrestrained Ruthless and Superb: The Mastery of Nicolai Fechin

Raw canvas, heavy palatte knife smears of paint, intense, aggressive, brutal. To stand in the presence of a Fechin master work is to be at once held captive and set free by his brutal and beautiful mark-making. The Frye Art Museum (Seattle) had a Fechin respective this Spring, including paintings and sketches, both drawing and oil sketches. Above; Portrait of Miss Sapojnikoff greeted vistors upon entry into the exhibit. The waxy finish of the face and the hands sharply contrasted by the globbed on painted and open patched of canvas. I found it spectacular that an area so absract in the front of her skirt can become so clear quickly. The lessons regarding the brain completing what the eye can't see are in full force in Fechin's paintings. He knows when to make a strong line, and when to keep an area abstract, when to leave something out altogether.


Although web based reproductions can never come close to the visceral experience of seeing a Fechin painting, this image of In the Evening c. 1910 (9.825 x 13.75) captures some of the thickness of the paint. Keep in mind, if you can, as you review the images and paintings on this blog, that there is an abundance of texture in his work not reproduced in the images below.


Fechiin's figure study's, with the beautiful edges, and the broad swathes of shading, are compositionally satisfying. His hands are always stunningly rendered. He gives great care to the hands and in the paintings, it's the hands and the faces. 


 In particular I love the dark lines at the feet, capturing the tension in the arches, and the turning of the charcoal on the side to shade. I find this study validating.




The Peasant Woman Study to the Cabbage Fest (right) received a good deal of visitor attention. For me, it was the exquisite contour work.


What surprised me what that a landscape painting could captivate me the way that Winter Landscape, Taos has. cs. 1927-1933. 15.25 x 24.25 in. Perhaps it needn't be such a surprise, I can see the connection to Franz Kline in the powerful mark making where the purple shadows meet the sunny late day snow in the lower left foreground. With nary an effort, you can see in the detail of the painting, an outtake of the lower right, he contrast the cool shadow with the bright snow, and a hen perched on the fence.


It's easy to see why Russian born Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955) was one of the most important portrait painters of the 20th century.

Fechin was born in 1881 in the town of Kazan, Russia. His father was a skilled craftsman in wood and metal who instructed his son in drawing and sculpting. In 1895 Fechin enrolled in the Art School of Kazan.

After he graduated in 1900, he entered the Imperial Academy where he studied under the painter Ilya Repin.


Oil Study

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 friend in the summer of 1904, Fechin spent the following summer visiting the smaller villages near Kazan to observe and record the everyday life of the local farmers. His fascination with rural customs and native people found expression again nearly twenty years later with the indigenous people of northern New Mexico and again in Southeast Asia.


Temple Dancer This painting completed almost entirely by palatte knife in transparent, vibrant pigments. It's stunning

Fechin graduated from the academy in St. Petersburg in 1908. In 1909 he accepted a full-time teaching position 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.

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 made Russian life chaotic. Fechin's parents died of typhoid fever. The Bolshevik government took the properties that Alexandra had inherited from her family. Returning to Kazan, Fechin continued to teach at the school under ever worsening conditions until 1920 when the arrival of representatives of the American Relief Administration caused him to consider leaving Russia permanently.

In 1922 he wrote to his American friend Stimmel, who initiated the process that enabled the Fechins to immigrate to the United States. Stimmel arranged for the sale of Fechin's work and set up a line of American credit for the artist with the proceeds.


Lilian Gish as Ronola 48.125 x 44 in

In 1943 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. In 1925 he took time off from a demanding schedule to visit California with his wife and daughter.


Manicure Lady, what I love about this painting are her left palm and the kettle in the upper left of the painting.

Despite his growing reputation and the obvious advantages of working in New York, Fechin found it hard to adjust to the pace of city life. During his fourth year in America, he became ill with tuberculosis and on his doctor's advice began a search for a healthier climate. Fellow artist John Young-Hunter 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 was very active in the Taos art community and had encouraged a number of painters and writers to settle there.

As he had been intrigued with non-European cultures in Russia, he was now attracted to the native people of New Mexico. The region's unspoiled scenery also appealed to his love of nature and in some ways reminded him of Russia. 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.


Medicine Man

In 1928 he purchased an adobe house from a local doctor on land next 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.

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.


All of the blurry little mysteries, like the teddy bear just out of the wrapping in the foreground and the blurred child, but also the way the light comes in through the curtains is stunning.

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 separated Fechin from his peers. He found it difficult to express himself in English and talk about art; he believed that what he had to say was nonverbal and best described in his pictures.

Fechin's stopover in Taos ended in 1933 when Alexandra filed for divorce. Leaving her with the house, Fechin took Eya and returned to New York City. Fechin and Eya later moved to California at the urging of Earl Stendhal, 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. 1


Rustic House c. 1910 and detail. I just love with an apparent "blob" of paint he can make a rooster come to life. In person it appears as if it all just came off of one mixed brush hit on the canvas and everything just happened by accident on purpose in the correct way in the correct place. 


David Burliuk


The real heroes of the Taos Art Museum are Nicolai Fechin, his wife, Alexandra, and daughter Eya. With all of his work on the house, Fechin still found time to work at the easel and continue to build on his reputation as a portrait painter. While living in New York, and prior to his arrival in New York City, Fechin painted portraits of such notables as Lillian Gish and Duane Van Vechten (who followed the Fechins to Taos and became one of the community's most important patrons). In Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan and artist Eleanora Kissel sat for him. But his most important models were Eya and Alexandra. He painted Eya until, in his opinion, she was no longer "cute." He painted faces and hands in the manner of the German Renaissance artist Hans Holbein and costume and setting in an Impressionistic style. Today, the walls of his renovated home are a perfect setting for his paintings, hand carved furniture, and architectural ornamentation. Nicolai Fechin, with a breadth of experiences, accomplished what few others have: his work is celebrated in New Mexico's finest museum, The Taos Art Museum for Artists and Their Patrons. 2




1. American Art Review
Vol. XVI No. 2 March-April 2004
pp. 122-129

2. The Taos Art Museum & Fechin House
By Dean A. Porter














Tags: Painting
Category: Featured Artist
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