Past Masters Study: Fechin

Nicolai Fechin–Masters of Shapes

There is always something interesting to discover in art when you study the master painters. While Claude Monet may have started my journey into Impressionism, other masters have continued to spark the imagination and provide inspiration. These discoveries often raise the bar in some areas of my art skills and enlighten the brain’s recesses with new information to utilize. One of these discoveries has been Nicolai Fechin.  I developed an interest in Fechin through my association with Kevin Macpherson and an annual trip to Taos, New Mexico.

Fechin was born in Kazan, Russia, in the year 1881.  His father, who instructed Nicolai in drawing and sculpture, was a skilled craftsman in wood and metal. In 1895 Fechin enrolled in the Art School of Kazan, a branch of the Imperial Academy of Art in St. Petersburg.

Graduating from the Kazan School in 1900, Fechin enrolled in the Imperial Academy, coming under the tutelage of Ilya Repin, whose highly popular works emphasized the realistic values of northern European masters such as Rembrandt. In addition, he was exposed to a collection of European Impression at the Hermitage Museum. This collection introduced Fechin to the idea of emphasizing visual experience based on the observation of nature.

Fechin traveled throughout Europe and, upon his graduation from the Imperial Academy, accepted a teaching position at a local art school in Kazan. In 1910, he received a Gold Medal for painting at the annual International Exhibition in Munich. He was invited to show in the International Exhibition held at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that same year. In Pittsburgh, his work drew the attention of New York art patron W.S. Stimmel. Fechin began selling his work through Stimmel in the United States.

When you read about Fechin and his family during the years of World War I, you can’t help but think of Dr. Zhivago. Upheaval from his home and loss of his wives’ property to the Bolshevik government, Fechin and his family moved back to Kazan, where he continued to teach art. The arrival of the American Relief Administration representatives caused him to think seriously about leaving Russia for good.  The Fechins arrived in New York City on August 1, 1923. In 1927, the Fechins moved to Taos, New Mexico, where the native people, their habits, and the desert landscapes inspired Fechin. 

When Nicolai and Alexandra divorced, Fechin took his daughter, Eya, back to New York before journeying to California, Mexico, and Bali. Finally, in 1947, he moved back to Santa Monica, California. He died quietly in his sleep on October 5, 1955. 

Fechin’s Artwork

When studying Nicolai Fechin’s work, you can’t help but notice his exquisite mastery of shapes and his use of color relationships sidestepping the overuse of value in favor of those color relationships.

I had the great pleasure of seeing this painting in person at the Fechin House in Taos, NM. Notice how Fechin grabs your attention with his delicate use of color and large shapes. When eliminating the color from this painting, Fechin used only three values throughout. Instead, Fechin broke down this portrait into five flowing shapes.  Emphasizing the task at hand, so to speak, we gaze at the woman’s delicately painted hands as she paints her fingernails.  Bright color nuances properly placed force our eyes to roam to the woman’s face lite with anticipation of the evening or day ahead of her as she prepares to present herself at her best. The woman’s face has the same value as the table to her right, and our eyes travel to that table then back to her hands. You would almost think the rest of the painting is useless, except that there are color relationships (complementary color) in the blue that draw our eyes to investigate her hat and dress.

This Fechin still life is precisely done, and as the above painting,  the number of values in this piece is minimal.  However, Fechin’s skill of defining shapes with color relationships is awesome!  Something well worth studying.

When you think you need all these wonderful color relationships, you find a Fechin that is minimal in values (2), has minimal large shapes, and has minimal color relationships.  The large shapes accented delicately and precisely with bright color notes (but in the same value as the greens and purples) captivate the viewer and keep their eyes moving through the painting.

Nicolai Fechin, the Master of Shapes, minimal values, and color relationships, is worth the study time and investigation to improve your skills in these areas.


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