Feature

Nicolai Fechin

The Russian-born artist was briefly a star of the American avant-garde.

It isn’t unfair to label Nicolai Fechin a footnote in the history of 20th-century art, said Brian Miller in Seattle Weekly. The Russian-born artist (1881–1955) was briefly a star of the American avant-garde, “a slinger of wild, unruly paint” who was admired by Arshile Gorky. “Basically a society painter who dabbled in rustic and ethnographic scenes,” he wasn’t radical enough to make a permanent impression, though the major retrospective now showing at the Frye suggests why his work excited people when it was first shown in the U.S. before World War I and when he followed behind it after the Russian revolution. “If you squint within inches of one of his crusty canvases,” the figures in them seem to fall away. “You’re left with the pure interplay of color, divorced from form”—a harbinger of the liberties the abstract expressionists would take.

Reproductions really don’t do his paintings justice, said Michael Upchurch in The Seattle Times. They “smooth out too much of the raspy, piled-up physicality of the paint.” The first canvas in the Frye exhibition, 1908’s Portrait of Miss Sapojnikoff, manifests all of Fechin’s strengths. He “cannily evokes the personality” of his subject, an early patron, while at the same time letting his love of impasto run wild in depicting her wardrobe—“the folded fan she holds looks almost three-dimensional from some angles.” Later on, sentimentality crept into his work, but the thrill of his “hectic” brushstrokes remained. Wherever history now ranks him, “I love the way Fechin seems to capture people in mid-breath,” said Bond Huberman in Seattle Magazine. In each of his portraits of his wealthy patrons, “you don’t get the sense you are facing off with an aristocrat. You might have known these people once.”

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