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Nicolai Fechin. Looking for a Home

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Two countries consider this artist their own: Russia, where he was born and lived until 42, and the United States, where he spent the second half of his life. He did not like moving, he valued his familiar environment, but at the same time he had a chance to wander a lot. He experienced poverty and prosperity, love and betrayal, dictatorship and complete creative freedom. Arthive has collected a dozen facts about Nicolai Fechin.
Nicolai Fechin. Looking for a Home

Fact 1: An orphan with living parents

The father of the future artist, Ivan Aleksandrovich Fechin, was a woodcarver and had his workshop where iconostases were made and gilded. Nicolai began to paint from an early age and began to help his father in his work very early.
Over time, Ivan Fechin went bankrupt, after which his wife went to her parents and left her husband and sons, Nicolai and the younger son Pavel.
Soon his father left Kazan, and Kolya Fechin was left alone. By this time, he had already been admitted to the Kazan Art School. The teenager lived in poverty and was received rare help from his relatives.

Fact 2: A student who became a teacher

Nikolai Fechin studied at the Kazan Art School from 1895 to 1900. Ten years later, immediately after graduating from the Higher Art School at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, he returned to Kazan, to his native school. Here he became a teacher of painting and drawing.
Numerous memories of Fechin’s students evidence that he was a brilliant teacher who raised the teaching in the institution to a new level. He continued to work at the Kazan school until his departure from the country.
In the 1930s, the school was transformed into the Kazan Art School, and in 2006 the school was named after N. I. Fechin
Homeless is a student work by N. Fechin. 1890s.
Kazan, Khazine National Art Gallery
Homeless is a student work by N. Fechin. 1890s.
Kazan, Khazine National Art Gallery

Fact 3: Fechin cut out sketches and “sculpted” paintings

As a child, Nikolai Fechin mastered woodcarving in his father’s studio. The famous 1920 self-portrait depicts the artist in his studio against the backdrop of home-made furniture. Sometimes he carved figurines of wood as sketches for future paintings. This was the case, for example, when creating the Slaughterhouse large-scale painting.
Fechin surprisingly combined the art of a sculptor and a painter. According to the memoirs of his student G. G. Medvedev, the artist "laid the strokes widely, using a palette knife and his fingers, with which he introduced paint into paint, as if kneading it like a sculptor. He sculpted with paints and even moistened his fingers with his saliva so that the paint smoothed out." The artist’s daughter said that because of this practice (the use of saliva when working with lead-containing paints), Fechin’s tongue became inflamed, and he had to undergo a long treatment.
Another technique of the artist was working with absorbent casein primer. "He made casein glue himself of cottage cheese with ammonia and glycerin" (G. G. Medvedev). Such primer made the paintings matte, without glare.

Fact 4: A native of Kazan who conquered the world

In the 1910s, Niсolai Feсhin did not limit himself to teaching, he actively participated in exhibitions, including international ones. His work was enthusiastically received by the European and American public and critics, there appeared his fans and regular customers. The artist became famous primarily as a portrait painter.
  • Fechin working on a portrait
  • Nicolai Fechin. Ballerina Vera Fokina (1927)
However, Feсhin painted still lifes, landscapes and created several outstanding genre paintings (Cabbage butterfly, Cheremis wedding, Slaughterhouse).
The collector William Stimmel had invited Fechin to the United States then, but he refused because of the lack of the necessary funds and the fact that he did not know the language.
Until 22 August 2021, in the State Tretyakov Gallery, you can see an exhibition of works by Nikolai Fechin from the collection of the State Museum of Fine Arts of the Republic of Tatarstan. Kazan houses the largest collection of the artist’s works, including painting, graphics, sculpture, which were mainly created before his emigration to the United States in 1923. The most famous work of the artist is also presented: as soon as the public saw the Portrait of Varya Adoratskaya, they immediately began to compare it with the Girl with Peaches by Valentin Serov (the description of the work is on the Arthive page of the artwork).

Fact 5: The favourite model, Eya

One of the students of Nikolai Fechin at the Kazan Art School was the daughter of its first director, Alexandra Belkovich. When Fechin made contacts with Europe, he needed help in correspondence, as the artist did not speak languages. Alexandra knew French and became his secretary. In 1913, Nikolai Fechin married Alexandra Belkovich, a year later they had a daughter.
Fechin always liked drawing children, which explains the reason why his portrait of Varya Adoratskaya has become his brand work. But his only daughter, Eya, was certainly his favourite model. He painted many Eya’s portraits, from her infancy to adulthood.

Fact 6: He welcomed the first revolution, criticized the second, fled from the third

Fechin, who was then studying at the Academy of Arts, accepted the revolution of 1905 with enthusiasm. He took part in student protests, and then wrote sketches for his paintings Leaving the Factory, 1905 at the Factory, Shooting, Accidental Victim. The two latter were banned from being shown at the exhibition of student works at the Academy.
The artist had a different attitude to the February revolution of 1917. "People, inspired by ideals, hurriedly undertook to rebuild the country, to destroy the old, having neither the physical strength nor the necessary knowledge to change the old for the sake of the unknown new," he later wrote in his autobiography.

The results of the third one, the October revolution forced the artist to look for ways to the West, although before that he had refused offers to work in the United States.

Fact 7: Fechin discovered Leniniana in painting

After the October revolution, Nicolai Fechin painted portraits of Karl Marx, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Leon Trotsky, but primarily Lenin, at the request of the political department of the Red Army.
This canvas, created by the artist in 1918 from a photography, became the very first pictorial portr

This canvas, created by the artist in 1918 from a photography, became the very first pictorial portrait of the leader of the revolution. In Soviet times, the championship was attributed to Fechin’s fellow student at the Academy of Arts, Isaac Brodsky for his V. I. Lenin and the Manifestation painting (1919).

Fact 8: The artist went to the USA “on a duty trip”

During the civil war, the Fechin family almost lived on the front line. Typhus raged (the artist’s father died of this disease in 1919), then famine began in the Volga region. The Kazan school was not heated, there were no good paints. But at the same time, some of Nicolai Ivanovich’s students got in power, and they helped their teacher as best as they could. In 1920, Nikolai Fechin was elected head teacher of the Kazan State Free Art Workshops. There is evidence that the issue of his move to Moscow was resolved at the highest level. However, the artist could not work as before.

"I felt like I was wasting my creative energy uselessly day after day, since art was only used for propaganda purposes," he wrote.

Nicolai Fechin. Self-portrait
Self-portrait
1920, 66×64 cm
With the assistance of the ARA (American Rescue Administration, which was then working in the Volga region), Nicolai Fechin resumed correspondence with his old acquaintances in the United States, received an invitation and began to arrange a duty trip to America to participate in art exhibitions. Within a year, he collected the necessary documents, and on 1 August 1923, the Fechins arrived in New York.

Fact 9: The educator and expat who didn’t know the language

Students of the Kazan Art School said that Nicolai Ivanovich was laconic in the classroom, he showed more than explained. In America, Fechin continued to teach and hardly changed his style of communication with students.
The fact is that the artist emigrated without knowing English. Alexandra Fechina quickly learned the language and was still a translator for her husband. Dean Cornwell, one of Fechin’s first students in New York, recalled: "Fechin taught me more than anyone before him could, although he could barely say a few words in English. He dramatically changed my approach to art; his wife Alexandra translated and explained everything he wanted us to know very sensibly."
Nicolai Fechin. Portrait of Alexandra. 1926—1927. Private collection, Moscow
Nicolai Fechin. Portrait of Alexandra. 1926—1927. Private collection, Moscow

Fact 10: Fechin built a Russian house on Indian ground

In 1925, Nicolai Fechin fell ill with tuberculosis, and in order to change the climate, the family moved to Taos, a town in New Mexico. Here Nicolai Ivanovich began building a house. He has been working on it for six years as an architect, designer, woodcarver, carpenter. Everything in the house, from furniture and carved columns to caskets and mirror frames, is made by his hands.
Taos, New Mexico, USA. Nicolai Fechin’s house: interiors, original paintings, photographs…
The Sour
Taos, New Mexico, USA. Nicolai Fechin’s house: interiors, original paintings, photographs…
The Sour
Taos, New Mexico, USA. Nicolai Fechin’s house: interiors, original paintings, photographs…
The Sour
Taos, New Mexico, USA. Nicolai Fechin’s house: interiors, original paintings, photographs…
The Sour
Taos, New Mexico, USA. Nicolai Fechin’s house: interiors, original paintings, photographs…
The Sour
Taos, New Mexico, USA. Nicolai Fechin’s house: interiors, original paintings, photographs…
The Source of the photos in the slider
Unfortunately, Fechin’s house was not destined to become a family hearth. When it came to completion, Alexandra Nikolaevna filed for divorce. Biographers talk about her unwillingness to live under the shadow of her famous husband as she dreamt of becoming a writer. Fechin himself, in a letter to his brother, mentioned her passion for a young poet.
Indeed, Alexandra Fechina wrote the Steps to the Past book and published it in 1937, but this did not bring her either fame or funds. She continued to own the house built by her husband until her death in 1983.
Today, Nicolai Fechin’s house in Taos is included in the list of US National Historic Monuments. The building houses the Taos Museum of Art
"His wife, Alexandra Belkevich, was the only love of Nicolai Fechin. And when she demanded a divorce, the world collapsed…" says the biography of the artist in Arthive.

Fact 11: Nicolai Fechin’s last journey was to his homeland

After the divorce, Nicolai Fechin left for New York with his daughter, then they moved to Hollywood and bought a large house there. When Eya got married and left her father, he moved to a smaller studio in Santa Monica. In the second half of the 1930s, Fechin travelled a lot: he visited Mexico, then he went to the Far East, to Bali and Japan. He spent the rest of his life in California.
Nicolai Fechin. A girl from the island of Bali. 1938
Nicolai Fechin. A girl from the island of Bali. 1938
Nicolai Fechin died in his sleep on 5 October 1955, a couple of months before the birth of his granddaughter. Eya Fechin named her daughter for her father, Nicaela.
According to his will, in 1976, the ashes of Nicolai Fechin were reburied in Kazan.
  • Nicolai Fechin. Daughter
  • Photo — Wikipedia

Fact 12: Nicolai Fechin’s legacy is huge

…and scattered around the world. More than 2,000 of the artist’s works are in museums and private collections in the United States. The Museum of Fine Arts of Tatarstan in the Kazan Kremlin boasts the largest collection of Fechin’s works in Russia. His works are also in museum collections in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Cheboksary, Kozmodemyansk, in Russian private collections.