“The artist’s problem of retaining the true pure strength of color depends on keeping the pigments separate and individually distinct. Mixing paints has definite limitations and only certain combinations of the three basic ones continue to provide clear and vital colors.”
“Using pure color applied directly onto the canvas with broad strokes of a palette knife, Fechin would often discard his artist’s tools and use his thumb to rework the finer qualities of his paintings. He believed that the world around him was changing rapidly, and felt it important to accurately record life in the moment. Through this energetic display, his work seemed to take on abstract qualities.” *
Russian-born American artist Nicolai Fechin is not as popular and omnipresent as his compatriot Mark Rothko but certainly deserves no less attention. Early in the twentieth century both artists left what used to be the Russian Empire and relocated to the United States. While Rothko left his homeland in his infancy, Fechin emigrated as a trained artist with a well-formed circle of admirers and patrons. One of these patrons, Duane Van Vechten is depicted in the portrait above. A foster daughter of the prominent Chicago banker, Ralph Van Vechten and an important figure of the Taos art scene Duane was an artist herself. However, most importantly, she continuously supported artists working in New Mexico, where Fechin eventually relocated from New York with his family. For an immigrant family from Russia this help and support must have been of great importance. This friendship and gratitude is revealed in an inscription that Fechin’s wife Alexandra left in her book: “To Duane, One of the very first and dearest friends of mine in the United States….”
That being so, you are looking at not just a commissioned portrait, which is highly characteristic of the artist’s manner, but at a work that had built the bridge between the Russian artist and his American career. Born in Kazan, Russia, Nicolai Fechin obtained academic training in St. Petersburg under the guidance of Ilya Repin who encouraged Fechin’s ingenuity and called him “Russia’s best painter”. It was then when Fechin developed his unique manner: broad, typical Impressionist strokes of pigments, fused with highly detailed realistic renderings of independent elements. Pay attention to the delicate modeling of Duane’s face contrasted with bold brushstrokes of her almost abstract shawl and dress.
The painting was recently featured at Sotheby’s 2008 American Paintings sale in London and has been listed in the November 2014 McDougall’s Fine Art Auction in London for close to 2m GBP.
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* Christie’s lot notes.