WINDOM — We meet Nicolai Fechin in a self-portrait painted around 1948, during the last decade of his life, showing the Russian-American artist dressed for work: a blue-gray smock over a crisp white shirt, his ready brush held horizontal in one hand.
Fechin, in his 60s at the time of the painting, bears a look of taut concentration — eyes slightly narrowed, brow creased and mouth drawn straight across — as if he’s preparing to strike at the canvas with one of his spontaneous-seeming but deadly precise strokes. The brick wall behind him is sketched in with wide, broken brushstrokes, and above his head the bricks dissolve into ragged streaks of color: red, yellow, green and purple.
The self-portrait appears near the entrance to The Museum of Russian Arts’ Fechin exhibition, the fourth in its Discovering 20th Century Russian Masters series, and it’s representative of the artist’s approach to portrait making: loose, improvisational painting anchored by his exquisite understanding of anatomy and the human form.
The selection here is mainly portraits, and they show Fechin lavishing attention on his subject’s faces; often they are the only fully rendered portion of the canvas, surrounded by Fechin’s tempestuous and impressionistic marks. It’s bold painting that can at times seem just a bit superficial, too wrapped up in its own virtuosity.
The son of a woodcarver, Fechin was born in 1881 in Kazan, a provincial capital located on the Volga River several hundred miles east of Moscow. His precocious talents earned him a place in state art schools in Kazan and, later, St. Petersburg, where he studied under Ilya Repin, whose painting would greatly influence the Russian Realists of the 20th century.
Fechin lived the last third of his life in the U.S., moving to New York in 1923 with his wife, Alexandra, and young daughter, Eya, to escape the turmoil that followed the 1917 Russian Revolution. Within a few years, Fechin relocated his family to Taos, N.M., where he hoped the high plains air would alleviate the symptoms of tuberculosis. The city was already home to a small artists colony centered around the home of Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy heiress from back East.
In 1928, Fechin completed “Albidia,” a portrait of Taos Pueblo woman who was Luhan’s housekeeper. It’s a half-indoor, half-outdoor scene, with Albidia perched on a small ledge near a garden. Fechin slows down his brush to delineate her small, rounded chin and raised eyebrows and captures the far-off look in her eyes, but then explodes on the sunlit garden behind her, leaving the canvas thick with impasto and vibrant color.
Fechin could rein in those impulses, and often would for commissions. A society portrait painted in the 1950s, near the end of his life, seems drained of Fechin’s usual vigor in its depiction of a stiff, matronly woman in a gold-trimmed black velvet blouse.
Younger women seemed to inspire Fechin’s best work, and his stunning 1927 portrait of the ballerina Vera Fokina is no exception. The painting is a bit more restrained than usual for Fechin, and emphasizes dancer’s lithe physique. Her lean but muscular arms rest on a massive black tutu covered in silver appliqués, and the dramatic costume gives Fechin another opportunity to show off his flamboyant brushwork: He scratches and smears the paint, but the tutu remains as weightless as a puff of smoke.