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 Nicolai Ivanovich Fechin  (1881 - 1955)

About: Nicolai Ivanovich Fechin
 

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Lived/Active: New Mexico/California / Russian Federation      Known for: portrait, figure and genre painting, wood carving

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BIOGRAPHY for Nicolai Fechin
Facts/Data
Birth
1881 (Kazan, Russia)
 
Death
1955 (Santa Monica, California)

Lived/Active
New Mexico/California / Russian Federation


Self portrait - Self-portrait


Often Known For
portrait, figure and genre painting, wood carving

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Categories of Interest

San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915
Taos Pre 1940
Western Painters
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Russia in Kazan on the banks of the Volga River, Nicolai Fechin became one of America's foremost ethnic portrait painters during the early 20th century.

He spent his childhood in the Volga Forest and learned wood carving from his father who worked with metals and wood as a craftsman. When he was 13, Fechin enrolled with a scholarship at the Kazan Art School, founded by his grandfather, and six years later, he began study at the Imperial Academy of Art in St. Petersburg. There he was a student of Ilya E. Repin, who tried to make his students aware of social evils and to reflect the realities of Russian life in their art work. Architecture was also a required part of the curriculum. Fechin was highly influenced by Repin, who asserted that artists' work should be motivated by the idea of conveying morality and literal truth rather than just aesthetics. A second teacher, Malavin, taught him to use wide, nervous-seeming brush strokes and to use his fingers in the paint to achieve a sense of texture.

After graduation from the Academy, Fechin was a teacher at the Kazan Art School, and also studied at the Imperial Academy of Art in Petrograd, which became Leningrad. Excelling there, he earned scholarship money to study in Paris and throughout Europe, and he was glad to leave Russia because of suffering deprivation during the Bolshevik Revolution. In Europe, he was fascinated by the Impressionists' manner of breaking up color, and he experimented with this style and with painting with a palette knife.

Very poor, he and his wife, Alexandra Belkovitch, and baby daughter, Eya, emigrated to America in 1923, something his wife insisted they do. Helped by wealthy sponsors, the family settled in Central Park in New York City where he struggled for a while to find work. Meanwhile he painted the variety of ethnic subjects he saw around him and was especially fascinated by black-skinned people. He taught at the New York Academy of Art until he gained gallery recognition, and his skills for portraiture became so well known that many upper class persons including novelist Willa Cather sought him out to do their portraits. During the summers, the family traveled west including to California, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.

When Fechin's suffering from tuberculosis became quite troublesome, his artist friends, John Young-Hunter and his wife, Mary, persuaded him to join them and their circle of friends in the drier climate of Taos, New Mexico. The Fechins stayed with former New Yorker Mabel Dodge Luhan for several months and felt comfortable in a community of adobe architecture and Indians that reminded him of Tartars of Kazan. Describing her father's reaction to this environment, his daughter, Eya, later wrote: "He loved the place. He had found an American 'home'. He said the Taos mountains reminded him of the beauty he had seen in Siberia. He painted with fervor. He felt particularly close to the Indians and his greatest American works were of Indians." (Balcomb xi-xii)

He built the family home around a previous structure, and inspired by Russian folk art, crafted much of the furniture using pinon fireplace logs . He also did intricate carving on the interior beams, columns and doors as well as the furniture.

In Taos, he was a hard-working man who did not socialize much but did numerous portraits of Indians, Mexicans and cowboys. These paintings are regarded as among his best work because of the exotic subject matter, high degree of modeling of the faces, and forceful, intense coloration. He also did impressionist wood sculpture.

In 1927, stormy divorce proceedings with his wife caused him to leave Taos. He and his daughter, Eya, went to New York briefly, and in 1936, about six months later, to California on the invitation from Los Angeles art dealer, Earl Stendahl, to have art shows and teach classes. For the next ten years, Fechin and Eya lived near each other in the Hollywood Hills. Fechin was well received, and his spirits picked up with his popularity among his students and the sales of his artwork. Bob Wagner in his magazine "Critic" wrote in the May 12, 1934 issue: "The first Nicolai Fechin canvas I ever saw nearly put me on my back---such color and brilliancy of technique!. . .what I saw convinces me that this Russian is one of the great artists of all time." (Balcomb xiii)

From California, Fechin traveled to Mexico, Japan, Java and Bali, which he loved and where he spent considerable time, but the damp climate caused him illness.

In the mid 1940s, Eya married, became a performing modern dancer and dance therapist, and then moved around, living in Colorado, New Mexico, and then in Iowa where she opened a psychodrama department in a state mental hospital. After some years, she divorced, remarried, and moved back to California. Meanwhile, left alone with a big house, Fechin decided at the urging of Eya to buy his Santa Monica studio property. There, according to his daughter, he was content and social "in contrast to his withdrawn silent attitude towards people in the past." (Balcomb xvi)

Shortly before he died in Santa Monica on October 5, 1955, he was persuaded by his biggest collector and good friend, John Burnham, to have a simultaneous retrospective at the art museums in San Diego and La Jolla. The events were huge successes and a chance for Fechin to see canvases he had not seen for many years.

After the death of Nicolai Fechin, his former wife and daughter lived in the family home in Taos. In 1981, Eya Fechin Branham spearheaded the formation of the Fechin Institute, a non-profit, educational organization headquartered in the house. An extensive collection of his work is housed there. Also the Stark Museum in Orange, Texas has over 50 Fechin paintings as well as some of his wood carvings.


Source:
Mary Balcomb, "Nicolai Fechin"
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Kazan, Russia on Nov. 28, 1881, Nicolai Fechin was raised in the dark Volga forest amidst the wild Tartar tribes.  Fechin's early art training came from his father who was a poor wood and metal craftsman.  At age 13 he received a scholarship to the Kazan Art School (which was founded by his grandfather) and at age 19 entered the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg where he was greatly influenced by Ilya Repin.

After graduating in 1909, he taught at the Kazan Art School.  Following several years of deprivation during the Bolshevik Revolution and WWI, he immigrated to America with his wife and baby daughter in 1923.  Fechin struggled for a meager existence in NYC doing portraits and teaching until his work was discovered by local galleries.

Sick with tuberculosis, he moved to Taos, NM in 1926.  While there, he did his finest work and became nationally known as a painter of Indians, Mexicans, and cowboys. He also created impressionistic wood sculpture.  At the height of his career, marital problems and ultimate divorce necessitated his move from Taos.

In 1936 he settled in Santa Monica, CA and began an art school.  An avid supporter of modern art, Fechin was a superb technician who often used a palette knife to apply his oils.  His bold, dramatic, and brilliantly colored canvases rank him among the giants in American art.

He died at his home in Santa Monica on Oct. 5, 1955.

Exhibitions:
Imperial Academy of FA, Petrograd, 1908 (1st prize); Int'l Glass Palace, Munich, 1909 (gold medal); NAD, 1924 (Proctor prize), 1925; Stendahl Gallery (LA), 1927Calif. State Fair, 1930; LACMA, 1935 (1st prize); Foundation of Western Artists, 1936 (medal of honor); GGIE, 1939; Oakland Art Gallery, 1939; Stendahl Gallery (LA), 1930s-1940s; Maxwell Gallery (SF), 1968.

Collections:
AIC; Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, Leningrad; Kazan Museum; Museum of NM; Nat'l Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Source:
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Nicolai Fechin by Mary N. Balcomb; Southern California Artists (Nancy Moure); American Art Annual 1929-33; American Western Art (Harmsen); Who's Who in American Art 1936-41; Artists of the American West (Samuels); So. Calif. Artists 1890-1940.
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

Biography from Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery Santa FeTucson:
Nicolai Fechin was one of the most unusual and inventive of the Taos artists, an internationally-acclaimed academic artist whose work while in New Mexico looks unlike almost any other artist practicing in the region at the time.

Born in Kazan, Russia, Fechin's father was a woodcarver and guilder. His hard-working and fastidious nature rubbed off on his son, who was a somber and serious individual with little disposition towards socializing and seemingly unlimited amounts of time for his art. At the age of thirteen, Nicolai enrolled at the newly-opened Art School of Kazan, which was essentially a satellite campus of the Imperial Academy of Art of St. Petersburg, which he went on to study at the completion of his studies in Kazan. There, he was a star student, receiving a six-year scholarship and exhibiting work at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh (where he first came to the attention of American collectors) and the Prix de Rome (at which he won a gold medal). This international fame would be crucial as, in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, Fechin's life became quite hard and, with the help of American collectors W.S. Stimmel and Jack R. Hunter, he and his family were repatriated to New York City, where Fechin taught at the New York Academy of Art. In 1924 he won the Thomas Proctor Azard for best portrait at the National Academy Exhibition, and it appeared that Fechin's New York career was picking up.

A bout of tuberculosis put an end to that, however, and Fechin, following in the footsteps of a great many artists who first discovered New Mexico as invalids, moved to Taos in order to recover. There, he stayed with Mabel Dodge Luhan while he built his own home, the sumptuous Fechin House, still standing today and absolutely remarkable in the level of detail and craftsmanship in the Fechin-designed structure. Architecture had been a required element of the curriculum at the Imperial Academy, and Fechin's house is a gorgeous regionalized piece of modernism, blending together the architecture of the Tatars of his native Russia with the pueblo architecture of the southwest. In his painting, Fechin focused on portraits, generally of native peoples.

It was the technique and the approach that made a Fechin portrait more than the equal of anyone else's. Masterful with a palette knife, with extraordinary color usage, Fechin used whatever he could, including his hands, the achieve the effect he was looking for. His portraits have nervous lines and a frenetic energy that seems to focus the viewer's attention on the facial features of the individual being painted. They were highly sought-after by the rich and famous, and some celebrities, including Willa Cather, chose Fechin to paint their portraits.

In 1927 Fechin became embroiled in a messy and destructive divorce that necessitated his departure from Taos. At the urging of the Los Angeles art dealer Earl Stendahl, he moved to the Hollywood Hills. He also began traveling extensively, visiting Bali, Java, Mexico and Japan. In the late 1930s he attempted to live in Bali, but was driven back to the United States by the beginning of Japanese hostilities in the Pacific. He bought a studio in Santa Monica and became more sociable than was his custom. In October 1955, shortly before his death, a major retrospective of his work was launched in San Diego and La Jolla, at which Fechin was able to see a number of paintings he had not seen for decades.

Biography from Thomas Nygard Gallery:
Nicolai Fechin was born in the village of Kazan, Russia, the son of a skilled craftsman Ivan Alexandrovitch Fechin, an accomplished woodcarver, icon maker, and gilder. At the age of thirteen, Fechin was ready to begin his life's work. The Art School of Kazan, a branch of the celebrated Imperial Academy of Art of St. Petersburg, had just opened, and the promising young youth received a six-year scholarship.

His work first appeared in America at the International Exhibit of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. In both western Europe and America, Fechin was greeted with instant acclaim. Among such distinguished contemporaries as Claude Monet, Pisarro, Gaston Latouche, Sisley and John Sargent, he won his first prizes and medals. He was called a "Moujik in art," the "Tartar painter."

Hardships following the Bolshevik Revolution eventually led Fechin to take his wife Alexandra and daughter Eya to the United States in 1923. The family first settled in New York, but not for long. Since a child, he had loved the somber forests and peoples near the Tartar border in his homeland. He found their equal in the high pine forests of the Colorado Plateau, the old adobe villages, and the Pueblo, Apache and Navajo tribes of the American Southwest. He moved his family to Taos, where a small community of artists also made their home. There he purchased a house in the middle of seven acres adjoining the Indian reservation.

His father's influence took over as Fechin spent the next several years hand crafting every viga, corbel, lintel and swinging door and niche for icons. Today the home itself remains a work of architectural art.

For seven years, before finally settling in Santa Monica, California, Fechin took great delight in the abundance of subject matter the Taos area provided him. He worked with vibrant hues to paint the native people. He traveled south to Mexico to sketch in charcoal, pencil, and pastel the many faces of its people. The sketches reveal the superb draftsmanship underlying all his work.

Author Frank Waters once wrote of Fechin's paintings: "How they shout and sing! No man . . . has his intensity of color. Few can equal his masterful draftsmanship. Whatever his subject, Fechin's work is stamped with his immediately recognizable style."

Biography from Nedra Matteucci Galleries:
NICOLAI FECHIN (1881-1955)

Nicolai Fechin was born in Kazan, Russia. His father was a woodcarver, gilder and maker of church altars. At age fourteen, Fechin enrolled in the Kazan Art School. He continued his studies at the Imperial Academy of Fine Art in St. Petersburg where he studied with the great Russian painter, Ilya Repin. For his last year at the Academy, Fechin was required to produce competitive canvases. Fechin won the Prix de Rome for one such painting entitled Bearing off the Bride (which is now in the permanent collection of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame) entitling him to a traveling scholarship abroad. This canvas was later sent to an exhibition in Munich where it won a gold medal and brought Fechin international acclaim.

Annually from 1910 forward, Fechin received invitations to international exhibitions, including those at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. Fechin was well-respected in Russia and was commissioned to paint a portrait of V.J. Lenin in 1918. Two of Fechin's U.S. patrons, W.S. Stimmel and Jack R. Hunter, were responsible for bringing Fechin and his family out of the Soviet Union in 1923.

Once in the United States, Fechin began teaching at the New York Academy of Art. In 1924 he won the coveted Thomas Proctor prize for best portrait at the National Academy Exhibition. Fechin was stricken with tuberculosis in 1926; his doctor prescribed the dry climate of the Southwest.

Fellow painter John Young-Hunter spoke very highly of Taos and its art community, and at the invitation of Mable Dodge Luhan, Fechin and his family moved to Taos, New Mexico. Fechin's brilliant portraits from this period are a reflection of the region. The images of the local Indians and Hispanics are colorful, dramatic, and filled with intense character.

Continuing to broaden his perspective, Fechin left for southern California, where he established his studio and taught for the remainder of his life. Fechin's paintings reflect his remarkable skill and artistry at capturing the mood and personality of his subject. The strength and power of Fechin's work have left a lasting and distinctive impression on art in the U.S.

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, II:
Nicolai Fechin
Born: Kazan, Russia 1881
Died: Santa Monica, California 1955

Taos painter of Indian portraits, sculptor

Nicolai Fechin’s father was a destitute craftsman in wood and metal in Russia. When Fechin was four, he became seriously ill and was given up for dead but restored by the touch of the Ikon of Tischinskoya. His boyhood was spent in the dark Volga forest with its wild Tartar tribes. When he was 13, he received a scholarship to the Art School of Kazan founded by his grandfather. At 19, he began his studies at the Imperial Academy of Art in St. Petersburg, the pupil of Ilya Repin who had introduced contemporary Russian art to the West in 1893. Fechin graduated in 1909 and was awarded a traveling scholarship through Europe. He was called “the Tartar painter” and was an instant success in European and American exhibitions with his palette-knife technique. When the Bolshevik Revolution followed WWI, Fechin left Russia for America after six years of privation. He was immediately popular in NYC with portrait commissions from celebrities and a first prize for portraits from the National Academy in 1924.

In 1927, he moved permanently to Taos, beginning at once on his stream of portraits of Southwestern types, painting by day and sculpting at night. Fechin was of medium, quick and direct, as sparse in speech as in art, painting only from life, a master of color. Fechin never lacked technical deftness but he did limit depicted emotions to “rugged and sober” for Indians and “exuberant and pleasing” for his other sitters. About 1936 he traveled through Mexico, making drawings. In 1938, he moved to Bali but was forced back to the US by WWII. He settled in Santa Monica, again painting people of the Southwest.

Resource: SAMUELS’ Encyclopedia of ARTISTS of THE AMERICAN WEST,
Peggy and Harold Samuels, 1985, Castle Publishing

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