By: John Dorfman
The Taos School of painting is known for its part-academic, part-modernistic depictions of a startlingly beautiful landscape and for its celebration of the picturesque qualities of New Mexico’s indigenous people. It often takes the unjaded eye of an outsider to see a place this way, and in fact, none of the Taos painters were actually from Taos (see Art & Antiques, Summer 2009). Joseph H. Sharp, Ernest L. Blumenschein, Walter Ufer and the rest of the original members of the Taos Society of Artists hailed from the Midwest or the East; most were city slickers before discovering cowboy-and-Indian country. But two major artists who made their home in Taos and who made its unique scene their subject came from a place far more distant—they were exiles from revolutionary Russia.
Nicolai Fechin and Leon Gaspard arrived in Taos during the 1920s, having previously lived in the Eastern United States. As with many artists and writers, health concerns initially led them to seek out the salubrious air of the high-altitude Southwest, but like the others, they immediately realized that Taos was a painter’s dream. While their styles and goals were quite different, they had a good deal in common. About the same age (Fechin was born in 1881, Gaspard in 1882), both were academically trained, adopted a version of Impressionist technique and were fascinated by the customs of traditional peoples such as the Pueblo Indians of America and the peasants and Tatars of Russia. Neither man was ever totally accepted by the already-established artists who began settling in Taos in 1898, and the style and substance of their work set them a little bit apart from the “Taos Founders.” Nonetheless, collectors covet their work today just as much as the others’, and their artistic contribution to this “American Bohemia” is just as indelible.
In fact, during his lifetime, Fechin found more favor with the Eastern artistic establishment than the likes of Sharp, Ufer or E. Irving Couse, whose approach was often dismissed as documentary or sentimental and whose technique was considered retrograde. Fechin, on the other hand, was admired for his more European sensibility and his distinctive take on Impressionist brushwork, which involved bold and unusual use of color, high impasto and aggressive use of the palette knife and even the fingers to lay on the paint. He was best known for his portraits, which combine realistic renderings of the subject with abstract, brushy, multicolored backgrounds. Fechin painted society people and public figures to make money, but his favorite subjects were rural Mexicans, American Indians and other indigenous peoples. He loved them not only for what he saw as their soulfulness and cultural authenticity but also for their rich skin tones. As Forrest Fenn relates in his book The Genius of Nicolai Fechin, after a session with an African-American model, the artist remarked, “You know, God never finished the white man; this is what the human being is supposed to look like.” Fechin also painted floral compositions, in which he could indulge his love of contrasting colors, as well as landscapes.
Gaspard painted portraits, too (though not on commission), but tended to concentrate on large scenes populated by throngs of people; his favorite settings were rural Russia, Central Asia, the Taos valley and the Navajo reservation. Though Gaspard’s permanent home was in Taos from 1921 until his death in 1964, he was an inveterate world traveler, and wherever he went he painted from life. His color choices were, to say the least, unconventional. The writer Frank Waters, Gaspard’s friend and biographer, wrote, “Perhaps no one outside a Parisian boudoir dares such shocking pinks. The colors scream and clash—and blend into a harmonic whole that seems, to Western ears, pitched slightly off key. These paintings … come from the hinterland heart of Eurasia, despite the French Impressionistic technique that applied them to canvas.” Certain motifs or personal symbols, appear again and again in his works: snow, bridges, horses and horsemen. Gaspard’s paintings vibrate with energy and convey a sense of constant movement.
“Both Fechin and Gaspard embraced an exuberant style of Impressionism,” says Eric Widing, head of American art at Christie’s New York. “It was a more modern treatment of Impressionist brushwork than in the earlier generation, more dashing and energetic, sometimes very abstract. There are elements of modernism, which informed their work and which make it exciting to look at.”
Born in Kazan, a city on the Volga River in the Tatar region of Russia, Fechin was the son of a carver of icons and altars for the Russian Orthodox Church. Amid conditions of great hardship and privation, his artistic abilities were recognized early—as a boy he would stay up all night drawing if left to his own devices. While the city was somewhat provincial, it boasted a school of art that taught along the lines of the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg. When he completed the course there, at the age of 19, he went on to St. Petersburg. There he studied with Ilya Repin, the great master of Russian academic history painting, famous for his gigantic canvasReply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV, which Tsar Alexander III bought for 35,000 rubles, the most ever paid for a Russian painting.
Though Repin imbued his pupil with a strong foundation of classical technique, Fechin would eventually move beyond it. He experimented a great deal in search of effects, not only with techniques but with materials. By his Taos period he had arrived at a working method in which he used a white ground, made of casein, and drained his paints of oil as much as possible. At one point he was even using cottage cheese on his canvases. According to Peggy and Harold Samuels in their 1990 book Techniques of the Artists of the American West, these daring methods made Fechin’s striking look possible, but today his canvases often pose a challenge to conservators. Fechin himself suffered for his art: His longtime habits of using his fingers to paint and licking his palette knife caused him to come down with lead poisoning late in life.
“Fechin was a painter’s painter,” says Ann Brown of Nedra Matteucci Galleries in Santa Fe, N.M., which has extensive holdings of both Fechin’s and Gaspard’s work. “That’s part of why there’s such admiration for him today. You can’t quite figure out how he did it.” Matthew Innis, a painter and art blogger who lives in High Bridge, N.J., says that the artists most cited as influences by contemporary traditional realists who use a “painterly style” are John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla, Anders Zorn and Fechin. As a teacher Fechin was fanatical about technique, and even went so far as to assert, “The more consummate the technique, the easier the artist will find it to free himself from all dependence on a subject. What he uses to fill his canvas with is not so vital; what is vital is how he does it.” His friend Gaspard said, referring to Fechin’s tempestuous brushwork, “His canvas is as rough as a heavy sea.”
After graduating from the academy in 1909, Fechin won the Prix de Rome, which enabled him to travel and continue his studies in Italy, France, Austria and Germany. After returning to Kazan he became a teacher at his old school and began selling paintings worldwide. When World War I and the Russian Revolution made life for him and his family difficult, two collectors in Pittsburgh, William S. Stimmel and Jack Hunter, who had connections in the State Department and who had bought Fechin’s work and had it exhibited at the Carnegie Institute, sponsored him to immigrate to the U.S. He, his wife, Alexandra, and daughter Eya arrived in New York in 1923. Success followed success, as Fechin painted portraits of such cultural luminaries as Willa Cather and Lillian Gish, but he wasn’t happy; he disliked New York and felt homesick for Russia. In 1926 he came down with tuberculosis and moved to Taos to recover.
There, despite his disparagement of subject, Fechin found his true subject and reached the high point of his career. He set about building an adobe house in Taos, which he elaborately ornamented with woodcarvings he did himself. (Today the building is open to the public as the Taos Art Museum and Fechin House.) Fechin’s English wasn’t very good, and he wasn’t very sociable; the crowd led by Mabel Dodge Luhan wasn’t for him. He liked to play chess and chat in Russian with Gaspard, who advised him to double the prices for his paintings—advice that Fechin took, to his advantage. He was most at home with the Indians and Spanish-Americans in and around Taos. But he was not destined to spend his life there. His intense dedication to his work and his somewhat grouchy personality led to conflict with his wife, and in 1933 she left him. After that, Fechin felt he couldn’t stay in Taos, and after a period of wandering, he settled in the Los Angeles area in 1936. He remained in California, painting and teaching, and died in 1955 at his ranch in Santa Monica.
Gaspard was an extravert where Fechin was an introvert. He was a raconteur who liked to talk, especially about himself and his adventures around the world, and many of his yarns went into Waters’ 1964 biography. Waters knew that a lot of these stories didn’t quite add up, but he was willing to publish some of them as an homage to his old friend. As it happened, Gaspard died while the book was on the press. To hear him tell it, Gaspard knew everybody: He and Marc Chagall were art students together in Russia; he was friends with Maxim Gorky and Feodor Chaliapin before they were famous; and such was his status in the Bohemian artist community of Paris that Puccini asked him to critique La Bohème before its premiere. He said that his teacher William Bouguereau gave him and his bride an elaborate wedding party at the Hotel Lutetia in Paris.
None of this was true, as Waters revealed in a biographical essay published in 1998. But there were elements of truth to it. Gaspard did indeed study in Paris with Bouguereau, the ultra-traditionalist academic. He and Chagall both came from the city of Vitebsk. In a way, the whoppers he told were less interesting than his real life, and in the end, his art is more interesting than either.
Gaspard’s father was a retired army officer of French Huguenot extraction who made his living in the fur trade. His mother was Jewish, a biographical fact that Gaspard kept carefully concealed. Not that he turned his back entirely on his Jewish heritage; throughout much of his life he kept a copy of a Yiddish poem called The Paper Bridge in his pocket or close at hand and would read it when alone. After art studies in Vitebsk and Odessa, Gaspard’s family sent him to Paris. There he met a rich American woman from Great Barrington, Mass., Evelyn Adell, whom he married over her family’s strenuous objections. She followed him on his travels in Central Asia, Mongolia and China (the extent of which, typically, he exaggerated later). He served in the French armed forces in World War I, and after being wounded moved with his wife to her native country, settling first in Massachusetts and then in Taos.
In the Great American Desert of the Southwest, Gaspard felt he had found a counterpart to the Gobi desert, whose landscape he loved, and in the Indians he saw a similarity to the Mongols, Turks and Tibetans whose appearance and folkways fascinated him. As for his artistic fellow-citizens, he tended to be dismissive of their work, and they in turn gave him, according to Waters, “a lukewarm welcome.” He sold his work steadily through dealers in New York, Detroit and Los Angeles and garnered a good deal of financial success and recognition, though never as much as he felt he deserved.
The current interest in Gaspard began in earnest with a major retrospective exhibition at Fenn Galleries in Santa Fe (now Nedra Matteucci Galleries) in 1982. “That established his posthumous reputation,” says Brown. “The market was then taking on a new shape.” Today his works can sell anywhere from the five figures for small works or somewhat less typical subjects, up to $2 million or so for one of the best. The record for a Gaspard was set at Christie’s New York in 2007 by The Finish of the Kermesse, a characteristically folkloric Russian scene, which brought slightly more than $2 million. Fechin’s record was also set at Christie’s, at a Los Angeles sale in 2007, when his Tonita, a portrait of an Indian girl who was one of his favorite models, went for $1.1 million.
The market for both artists is mature at this point. “Among collectors they’ve been valued for a long time,” says Widing. He points out that Fechin and Gaspard have been “passionately collected” by devotees of Western art for decades—although both of them, especially Fechin, would have strongly denied being a Western artist. Now they have more of a general following, which, according to Brown, means more interest in non-Southwestern subjects than before. Also, the market has recently been enlarged by collectors in Russia who are prepared to pay big prices for one of their own. “Russian collectors have driven up the value of the Russian-themed works,” says Brown, “anything related to the Motherland.” She adds that the recent seven-figure auction prices are not typical, partly because the paintings “sold when the overall art market was very high” and partly because they were large-scale, and “neither artist painted large very often.”
Though he died in California, Fechin was buried in Russia, and probably Gaspard was fully at home nowhere in the world. Throughout their lives both artists remained European and specifically Russian in their approach to painting. Nonetheless, says Widing, “they gravitated to places untouched by modernity, and were drawn to a certain wildness of place. And there’s something very American about that.”