As one of the most important American portraitists of the twentieth century, Nicolai Fechin is especially revered for his depictions of Native Americans and the New Mexico desert landscape. Of equal merit is the house he built for his family in Taos, New Mexico. A charming combination of styles, it is now home to the Taos Art Museum, and a visit reveals much about the history of painting in New Mexico, as well as about Fechin himself.
Born in Kazan, Russia, in 1881, Fechin studied at the Kazan Art School and the Imperial Art Academy in St Petersburg. He was particularly interested in indigenous cultures, and by 1904 his work focused primarily on portraiture, capturing the customs of peasant farmers in exuberant colors. After earning a gold medal for painting at the Munich International Art Exhibition, Fechin gained international attention. In 1922 his work caught the eye of New York art patron W.S. Stimmel, who arranged for his emigration to the United States. In 1923 Fechin arrived in New York City, along with his wife, Alexandra, and their young daughter, Eya, and he began teaching at the New York Academy of Art. In 1924 he was awarded the Thomas Proctor prize for portraiture, and in 1926 received a medal in painting at the Sesquicentennial International Exposition in Philadelphia.
Socialite and art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan lured Fechin and his family to Taos in 1927. They stayed briefly at Mabel’s Palace, before purchasing a traditional adobe house—a two-story structure with a total of eight rooms that satisfied the Fechins neither functionally nor aesthetically. During the next five years, Fechin renovated the house himself with help from local Pueblo workmen, transforming the interior into an asymmetrical Pueblo, or Mission revival style house with twenty-four-inch thick adobe walls. He added arched bay windows of rolled and beveled glass, metal light fixtures, and handcarved architectural detailing using Russian design motifs. The windows were planned to take advantage of the natural surroundings, juxtaposing the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with Fechin’s growing art collection.
Fechin’s enjoyment of his handcrafted and highly personal masterpiece was short-lived, however. His wife filed for divorce in 1933, and he and Eya moved back to New York City, and later to California. Eya returned to her childhood home in the 1970s to restore it. In 1979 the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1981 opened to the public. After Eya’s death in 2002, the property was sold to a private foundation, and soon thereafter the Taos Museum of Art was born.
In addition to Fechin’s own work, the museum holds more than three hundred examples by over fifty Taos-based artists, primarily from the early twentieth century. Of particular significance are paintings by members of the Taos Society of Artists , which owed its formation to the fact that the painters Ernest Leonard Blumenschein and Bert Geer Phillips suffered a broken wagon wheel outside the city en route to Mexico. Enchanted by the mystical atmosphere of the region, the two men cancelled the remainder of their trip and subsequently inspired a slow and steady stream of artists, who would officially form the Taos Society in 1915.
The dramatic desert landscape continues to draw artists today, and one of the main aims of the museum is to bring native art back to Taos. The upcoming 5th annual Gala Auction, “A Russian Night in Taos,” on Saturday, August 29, will benefit the museum and its mission. The Taos Art Museum and Fechin House is located at 227 Paseo del Pueblo Norte in Taos, New Mexico, and is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 10 am to 5 pm. Admission: $8, discounts available for children, students, and seniors. For additional information, visit www.taosartmuseum.org, or call (575) 758-7320.
Images courtesy of Taos Art Museum. Additional photographs by Scott Moore www.flickr.com/photos/scottm