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Nicolai Fechin

(1881 - 1955)

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Biography

One of America’s premier portrait, landscape, and still life painters from the 1920s through the early 1950s, Nicolai Fechin was a Russian expatriate whose unique style synthesized Eastern European techniques with a profound interest in capturing the spirit of his subject.  Fechin’s mature style, sometimes characterized as an amalgamation of Impressionist theory and Russian historical realism, had taken shape by 1927, when he settled in the remote New Mexican village of Taos.  As a result, Fechin’s southwestern work often transcends the genres of ethnographic study and romantic propaganda to become intimate representations of a specific cultural or geographic identity.

Nicolai Ivanovich Fechin was born on November 26 (old Russian calendar) in Kazan, a prosperous trading village on the banks of the Volga.  Weakened by a bout with meningitis at the age of four, Fechin was a shy, sensitive child who demonstrated a talent for drawing as well as painting by the age of five or six.  It was soon apparent to Ivan Fechin that his son’s talent necessitated more serious attention, and in 1895 he enrolled thirteen year old Nicolai in the Art School of Kazan.  Upon his graduation in 1900, Fechin was recommended for the entrance examinations at the Imperial Academy of Art in Petrograd (St. Petersburg).  There he studied with the celebrated historical painter Ilya E. Repin, who emphasized a graphic form of realism akin to that of contemporary Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.  Repin’s attention to facial expressions as a vehicle for conveying meaning deeply influenced Fechin, who remains best known today for his portraiture.

By 1909, Fechin had graduated from the Academy with honors and a scholarship that enabled him to travel.  After “looking through countless museums” in Paris, Germany, and Italy, he returned home exhausted and uninspired.  Fechin soon began teaching in his hometown and participating in international exhibitions, where his work attracted the attention of wealthy American collectors, including W.S. Stimmel, a wealthy collector and industrialist, who began to write to Fechin, imploring him to come to America.  Although he was prosperous in Kazan as a well known painter and beloved teacher, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and subsequent rise of Joseph Stalin led to fundamental changes in Russian life that Fechin found increasingly constraining.  Aided by former students in high government positions and a network of wealthy American patrons, Fechin and his family glimpsed the skyline of New York City on August 1, 1923.  While he enjoyed New York’s cosmopolitan atmosphere and widespread patronage, he and his family moved to Taos in 1927 on the advice of fellow artist John Young-Hunter, who suggested they experience the “real America.”

In Taos, Fechin began painting in increasingly bold jewel tones, combining them in atypical ways.  Despite his connection to New Mexico, which reminded him of his hometown Kazan, he chose to remain aloof from the Taos art community.  His participation in local artists’ meetings were sporadic and depended solely upon which topics struck him as valid, rather than a desire to fraternize with other painters.  Following an abrupt divorce with his wife in 1933, Fechin left Taos for California, where he continued to work and teach until his death in 1955. Although somewhat isolated both socially and stylistically from the majority of Taos artists, the six years Fechin spent in New Mexico were among the most productive of his prolific career. 

Publications