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Portraits From Life by Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955)


Portraits From Life by Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955), a newly installed exhibit in Gallery 5 at the Stark Museum of Art, is currently on display through December 2003. (right: Nicolai Fechin, Girl in Orange Shawl)

Nicolai Fechin, Russian-born painter, draftsman, sculptor, and woodcarver, received his first training from his father, who was a professional woodcarver and metalworker. At fourteen he entered the Kazan Art School. After graduation he was accepted at the Imperial Art Academy in St. Petersburg. His work was first exhibited in America in 1910 and quickly came to the attention of American collectors. In 1923, he immigrated with his wife Alexandra and daughter Eya to the United States, settling in New York. In 1924, he won a first prize in portraiture from the National Academy of Design.

In search of an unspoiled environment in which to paint, Fechin visited Taos, New Mexico in 1926 at the invitation of Mabel Dodge Luhan and artist John Young-Hunter. Finding Taos reminiscent of his native Caucasus, he moved there the following year and obtained his American citizenship. Fechin's work is distinctive among the Taos artist, partly because of his Russian training and his unusual use of the palette knife to apply paint directly to the canvas. He is considered to have created some of his best work in Taos: brilliantly colored desert landscape scenes and portraits of Native Americans painted in a loose, expressive style.


Brief Biography of Nicolai Ivanovich Fechin, 1881-1911, Born Russia, to America 1923

A painter and sculptor both, Nicolai Fechin was first invited to Taos by Mabel Dodge Luhan. His work is distinctive among the Taos artists, as he depicted well-known Taos subjects in his won idiom, derived in part from his Russian training. For his brilliantly colored genre paintings and portraits, Fechin favored the palette knife, an artist's instrument seldom used by other Taos painters. Equally outstanding are his sensitive, carved wooden busts with their smooth linear grace which reflect his interest in the avant-garde art movement of the early twentieth century.

Born in Kazan, Fechin was the son of a skilled artisan in wood and metal, who created church altarpieces. Fechin received his first training in his father's shop and at the age of thirteen entered the Art School of Kazan. Six years later he went to study at the Imperial School of Art in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), working under Ilya Repin, the master academic realist of Russian subjects. In 1909, Fechin won a choice scholarship, the Grand Prix de Rome, and spent a year traveling through Europe, at which time he was introduced to the rich coloring of the French Impressionists. In 1910 he returned to Kazan, to teach at the art school and began to exhibit widely. His paintings at the International Exhibition at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh in his colorful, palette-knife style came to the notice of American collectors.

Because of the Bolshevik Revolution, Fechin lost not only his patronage in Russia but also permission to exhibit abroad. Following several years of hardship, he immigrated with his family to the United States in 1923 through the efforts of some of his American patrons. Fechin sought a rural environment, settling in the Pennsylvania countryside and soon became successful with portraiture, winning the first prize for portraits at the National Academy in New York in 1924. Not content with the East Coast, he went to California and moved to Taos in 1927 upon the invitation of Mabel Dodge Luhan. He felt drawn to the New Mexican landscape because it reminded him of the Russian Caucasus.

In Taos he led an active artistic life, drawing, painting and sculpting while he rebuilt an old house and constructed a studio. However, in 1936, his divorce caused him to leave Taos. Settling in California, he took extended trips to Mexico and Bali, returning to California at the beginning of World War II. He opened a successful art school in his studio in Santa Monica and continued working until his death.


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