"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." - Bob Wagner, Critic Magazine May 12, 1934
Among today's practitioners of bravura brushwork, there seems to be a consensus as to which artists from the twentieth century were most influential on their, the contemporary artists', "painterly" style. Of the four painters who appear to be most often cited as inspirations, there are three with whom nearly everyone is familiar: America's John Singer Sargent, Sweden's Anders Zorn, and Spain's Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida. The fourth artist, however, Russian-born Nicolai Fechin, remains a bit of a mystery, though he is obviously an important figure to all those already acquainted with his work.
Had he not emigrated from Russia, Fechin would probably be nearly forgotten here in the United States, and maybe only marginally known in his own country. It is ironic that what ultimately appears to have preserved Fechin's legacy in America was his subject matter, the American Indians around Taos, New Mexico, and not his technique, though he held technique above all else. The further irony now, of course, is that Fechin's work is once again prized for his technique, though his paintings are crumbling away due to poor procedures.
Nicolai Fechin was born November 26, 1881 in Kazan, a village along the Volga River in central Russia. His father, a skilled craftsperson in metal and wood, established a shop in Kazan, and had hopes that Nicolai would some day be shop assistant, but when the young Fechin showed early signs of drawing skill, his father enrolled him in the newly-opened Kazan Art School. Nicolai was thirteen at the time.
The Kazan Art School was a "branch of the (Russian) Imperial Academy of Art, and it offered a six-year course including regular high school."¹ Quickly, the school became Fechin's home, not only figuratively, but literally, as first his father, on the failure of his business, abandoned the family, and then his mother, under the stress of being left to raise her child alone on the edge of civilization, left Nicolai to return home to her family. Fortunately for Fechin, an aunt helped to fund his tuition, and he remained at the school, sharing a dormitory room with two other classmates.
At the age of nineteen, when his studies in Kazan had finished, Fechin continued his education at the Imperial Academy of Art in Saint Petersburg. At the Academy, Fechin was allowed to study under Ilya Repin, who was in great demand as a teacher, and who only selected a fortunate few entrance to his class. Though Repin held great sway over his students, it was another teacher at the school, Filipp Andreevich Malavin (1869-1940), whose paintings expressed "wide, nervous brushstrokes" and rich, finger-painted texture, who imparted the most influence on Fechin. Despite the school closing for a year during the Revolution of 1905, and despite the voluntary departure of Repin in 1906, Fechin remained at the school, winning prizes and accolades while he studied and painted unsupervised by any faculty.
In 1909, Fechin's last year at the Imperial Academy, not only did he graduate with the highest possible honors but one of his final canvases, Bearing Away the Bride, won that year's Gold Medal at the Prix de Rome. The prestigious prize enabled Fechin to travel throughout Austria, Germany, Italy, and France to study art on a scholarship, and his success at the competition brought him international attention. Upon his return to Russia in 1910, Fechin assumed a teaching position at the Kazan Art School, and continued to show his art worldwide at the invitation of many prominent art organizations.
For several years, Fechin enjoyed much happiness and success in Kazan. He was well-known in Russia, and was popular amongst his students who enjoyed his less-structured classes. His art was winning him much acclaim. In 1913, he married Alexandra Belkovitch, the daughter of the school's director, and in turn, had a daughter of his own, Eya. Life was good for Fechin, until World War I, and the later domestic Russian political upheaval, which brought turmoil to Fechin's family and life.
In 1917, Saint Petersburg, which by then had been re-named Petrograd, witnessed the beginnings of both the February and the October Revolutions. With the overthrow of the Russian monarchy, and the eventual installation of Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin as the first head of the Soviet Union, many changes came to state-run schools like the art academy in Kazan. Luckily for Fechin, many of his former students had attained positions of prominence in the newly-formed government, and they protected their beloved instructor and his family from harm.
Facing an uncertain future in the new Soviet Union, and having no outlet for his art except for government propaganda (including a 1918 portrait of Lenin himself), Fechin finally agreed to his wife's urgings, and began the process of emigrating to the United States. In 1922, Fechin obtained American immigration papers with the help of US supporters, including art collectors Jack R. Hunter and W.S. Stimmel, the later of which had purchased Fechin's portrait of Madame Sapojnikova at the Carnegie Institute Exhibition of 1910. One year later, in 1923, again with the help of former students in key Soviet positions, Fechin and his family were finally granted permission to leave for the promise of the United States.
Landing in New York City on August 1, 1923, Fechin was soon provided a studio by American illustrator Dean Cornwell, and began teaching American pupils, whom he later criticized as being too "satisfied with the most superficial effects."² The family only struggled a short while before Fechin, then a teacher at the New York Academy of Art, won the "coveted Thomas Proctor prize for best portrait at the (1924) National Academy Exhibition."³ Soon Fechin was represented by galleries in both New York City and Boston, and was painting portraits of America's rich and famous, including that of novelist Willa Cather.
Tuberculosis struck the artist in 1926, and on the advice of his doctor, Fechin headed to the American West to seek a drier climate for recuperation. Following the urging of fellow-artist John Young-Hunter, Fechin settled in Taos, New Mexico, where the Taos Society of Artists had been painting the Indians and Spanish-Americans of the remote village for the last quarter-of-a-century. His daughter, Eya, later said of Fechin: "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."⁴ Finally comfortable in his new land, the hard-working Fechin, constructed a house and studio of his own unique vision, blending Russian folk art and carving with the designs of the Southwest pueblos. He accomplished this while obtaining American citizenship, and while painting his best works of art. By 1927, however, Alexandra, frustrated by Nicolai's inability to balance his art with his family life, filed for divorce, and once again Fechin's life was in tumult.
Fechin became withdrawn and increasingly anti-social after his divorce. He left Taos in 1933, feeling he could no longer stay there, but finding no other place which suited him (New York, he felt, was particularly depressing). Friends told him he might as well go back to Russia. Finally, the Los Angeles art dealer, Earl Stendahl, convinced Fechin to move to California, and after settling in the Hollywood Hills in 1936, the artist's temperament drastically improved.
In California, Fechin once again found success. He started taking on students, and soon had eighty pupils. His later style, unlike that which he employed during his time in Taos, was now slick and more realistic, but was popular among his wealthy clientele. Portrait commissions were numerous and he became once more, a wealthy man.
With the exception of a failed move to Bali in the late '30s, California would be his home for the rest of his life. On the morning of October 5, 1955, after neighbors noticed that the structured artist had not taken his dog, Pepper, for its morning walk, the artist was found dead in his home. He had painted to the last, having worked in his studio until sundown the day before, like he had done every day since moving to his home in Santa Monica in 1948.
In his "Notes on Art, " Nicolai Fechin states:
... a high degree of expertise in technique has always had, and always will have, a predominant place in art. The subject, in itself, has value only according to the mode of the day. Tomorrow it will be superseded by a new fashion or fad. With the passing of time, the subject loses much of its meaning. But the fine execution of that subject retains its value...The more consummate his technique, the easier the artist will find it to free himself from all dependence upon a subject. What he uses to fill his canvas with is not so vital. What is vital is how he does it. It is sad if an artist becomes a slave to the object he seeks to portray. The portrayed object must serve as nothing more than an excuse to fill a canvas. Only when the subject passes through the filter of his creative faculty does his work acquire value for an artist...The artist must never forget that he is dealing with the entire canvas, and not with any one section of it. Regardless of what he sets out to paint , the problem remains one and the same. With his own creative originality, he must fill in his canvas and make of it an organic whole. There must not be any particularly favored spot in the painting...My way of drawing and painting can be taught only through direct visual perception and it is almost impossible to describe it. An attitude toward painting and a few technical fundamentals can be discussed, however- but always with a warning not to take my observations in an overly literal or rigidly set manner...To me, technique should be unlimited... (in) constant growth in ability and understanding. It must never be mere virtuosity but an endless accumulation of qualities and wisdom... First comes the initial idea for a work- what the artist desires to portray, to bring into concrete manifestation. In order to fulfill this task, he must begin to build, to organize."⁵
It is unfortunate, perhaps, that Fechin, who prized technique so highly, should have spent so many years of his life experimenting, and not constructing his paintings based on the successes of past artists (though he did read antique painting manuals like those of Cennino Cennini and Dmitri Kiplik).⁶ His words are compelling, but his methods, unfortunately, were horrible and dangerous. Perhaps the American students he belittled for being too interested in the "superficial effects" of his painting, knew that it was better to emulate his style, rather than to copy his procedure.
He began his paintings on plain, double weave Belgian linen, which was often attached to stretchers of his own making. His ground varied, not only from painting to painting, but upon a single canvas. In some areas he might use rabbit skin glue; in others, cottage cheese. The absorbency differences in the various sections of ground resulted in areas of high gloss and areas of matte finish in his completed painting. This is the effect he sought, and he therefore did not varnish his paintings when suitably dry (if they ever did dry).
On this ground, he would often sketch in casein. "Only after Fechin worked out a perfectly correct sketch was it possible for him to abstract form, shape, and color."⁷ The upper layer was painted in oils, but this combination often produced severe cracking, long before the painting was complete, which, despite the look of spontaneity in his work, might take up to a month in the finishing.
His colors were:
- Zinc White (which he laid out the night before on paper towels to absorb the excess oils)
- Cadmium Yellow
- Yellow Ochre
- Burnt Sienna
- Vandyke Brown
- Rose Madder
- Emerald Green
- Mineral (Maganese) Violet
- Mussini Sunproof Rose
- Cerulean Blue
- Ultramarine Blue
- Ivory Black
He did not use a medium, preferring to lay in colors thickly (he absorbed the oils from all of his paints, one student observed), and allowing for visual mixing where pigments and textures overlapped. Colors were laid in from dark to light, with a very specific plan in mind. He also avoided too much use of the zinc white, as it made his colors too chalky and ruined the transparency of the pure colors on his palette.
The paints were applied with stiff bristle brushes, painting knives and his fingers. Often, he would lay the color in one direction with a brush, and then blend it with a perpendicular stroke of his painting knife.
If nothing else about his technique scares you, then know this: to achieve better flow with his painting knife, he would wet it before each stroke- with his tongue. The faces on his Indians were painted with his fingers, oil paint, and saliva... It is no surprise that he eventually suffered from lead poisoning.
"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." - Frank Waters, author
¹ Peggy Samuels, Harold Samuels, Joan Samuels, and Daniel Fabian, Techniques of the Artists of the American West (New Jersey: The Wellfleet Press, 1990), p. 92.
² Samuels 92.
³ from the biography provided by the Nedra Matteucci Galleries
⁴Mary N. Balcomb, Nicolai Fechin (Fechin Art Reproductions, 1999), p. xi-xii.
⁵ Samuels 94.
⁶ Samuels 94.
⁷ Samuels 96.