LEONID GECHTOFF, 1883-1941
Leonid Gechtoff was born in Odessa, Russia, in 1883, an only child of parents already in their forties and not particularly well off financially. After his art school training in Russia, where he probably first met his close life-long friend David Burliuk, he and his parents fled from their homeland when he was in his twenties, rather than have him face possible conscription into the army. Cairo proved to be a haven for several years and Gechtoff painted many city and genre scenes of Egypt in his heavily impastoed style, bringing him acclaim in the Orientalist-enamored European art world as well.
Gechtoff always felt most influenced by the work of Vincent van Gogh, however, and this led him to travel to Holland where Dutch-born van Gogh painted in his early years, though not in the colorful later style Gechtoff most admired. There he established good connections which led to gallery shows in Amsterdam, and at one he met his future Russian-born wife Etya while she was on vacation from her pre-medical studies in Germany. Her family was well-to-do and supportive of the young couple, so they were able to wed and settle in Holland initially for about a year, around 1917. Several Alpine landscapes indicate painting trips in more mountainous parts of Europe too. Both Leonid and his wife were fluent in several languages.
The Gechtoffs soon moved to Indonesia, then a major South Pacific colony under Dutch control, hoping that the warmer climate would be better for Etya's health. The lush volcanic landscapes were strongly appealing to the artist as well. They lived in Java for about two years, in 1918 and 1919, and enjoyed traveling and collecting throughout the region during painting trips.
By 1920 they were living in Manila, and in early 1921 they planned a visit to see two of Etya's brothers in Pennsylvania later that year. Once in America, the Gechtoffs found themselves persuaded to stay and settle in Philadelphia, with both becoming US citizens. Leonid's major patron and benefactor was either a member of the family of Dutch-born philanthropist Edward Bok or Bok himself. Along with inclusion in various group exhibitions, his work was featured in a solo show at the Philadelphia Art Alliance in the early 1930's.
Gechtoff had achieved substantial success throughout the 1920's from his landscape paintings near his home in Philadelphia, and had also purchased a summer home on Cape May, New Jersey, where he painted many coastal scenes. Unfortunately, he made large investments in the stock market in the latter years of the decade, and these disappeared almost overnight in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The family now included young Sonia, born in 1926, and soon her sister, born in 1933.
With their fortunes in decline, like so many artists in the Depression of the 1930's, they sold the Cape May house but still were able find suitable rentals at the shore for their summer sojourns, and otherwise still lived in downtown apartments in Philadelphia. Gechtoff's works began to depict wintry landscapes along with his bright rocky seascapes and still lifes.
Gechtoff continued vigorously painting in his vivid and distinctive style, a blending of post-Impressionism and expressionism, until his health became a problem in 1940, with the stress of high blood pressure and complications. He died in 1941 at the age of 58. His widow later moved to San Francisco and ran an influential exhibition space in San Francisco called the East-West Gallery, while daughter Sonia became a well-known artist currently living in New York City.
Gechtoff is listed in the Archives of American Artists, part of the Smithsonian Institution.
Submitted by Cornelia C Moynihan, of Moynihan Fine Art, with thanks to Sonia Gechtoff for biographical data.