A masterful example of Nicolai Fechin's work, Friends is indicative of the artist's high style during his Taos, New Mexico period, combining a predilection for modern art while simultaneously capturing the realism of an intimate glimpse into the region's Native American life. Trained at the Imperial Academy in Leningrad, Fechin developed a quick and dramatic approach to painting. He immigrated to the United States in 1923 with his wife and young daughter and immediately immersed himself in the artistic community of New York. Fechin had already established a name for himself, having received invitations to exhibit at the Carnegie Institute in Pennsylvania, but new patronage now provided the artist with broader exposure and allowed him the freedom to paint a variety of new subjects in his singularly distinct style.
The rigorous training Fechin received in Russia would set the precedent for the artist's lively draftsmanship and sense of color. This education explains the solidity of form and clarity of vision that is evident in such masterworks as Friends. Fechin wrote: "The artist must not forget that he is dealing with the entire canvas, and not with only one section of it. Regardless of what he sets out to paint, the problem in his work remains one and the same: with originality, to fill in his canvas and make of it an organic whole...Technique should be considered only as a means to an end, but never the end in itself. To me, 'technique' should be unlimited, a constant growth in ability and understanding; never mere virtuosity, but an endless accumulation of qualities and wisdom." (as quoted in M.N. Balcomb, "Fechin on Art," Nicolai Fechin, San Cristobal, New Mexico, 1975, p. 159)
Discontented with city living in New York, Fechin decided to venture west to California with his family in 1926, traveling along the southern route through the unique landscape of the Southwest mountains and desert. Fechin accepted an invitation to stop in Taos, New Mexico from his friend and fellow portrait painter, John Young-Hunter, and became immediately enchanted with the history, landscape, and people of the Taos Pueblo. "When Fechin arrived in Taos, several New York artists had visited or resided in the area, including John Marin, Robert Henri, Andrew Dasburg, and Marsden Hartley. Nearly all of the original members of the Taos Society of Artists regarded themselves as sophisticated 'modern' painters. Fechin's background, however, was very different from theirs in its rural associations and uniquely Russian focus." (D.C. Hunt, "Nicolai Fechin's Portraits from Life," American Art Review, Kansas City, Missouri, April 2004, p. 126)
Fechin flourished in the bright light and intense color of the region. He quickly developed a great respect and affection for the native peoples of the area and the people of Taos Pueblo became the focus of the artist's compositions. Using pure color applied directly to the canvas with broad strokes of a palette knife, Fechin would often then discard his tools and use his thumb to re-work the finer qualities of his sitter's expression and moods. He worked quickly to capture a sincere and direct likeness from his sitter, oftentimes working so vigorously that his subjects would become apprehensive as he attacked the canvas surface.
From his earliest days as a young student in Russia, Fechin was captivated by portrait painting. The widely varied faces of the people he encountered in his native Russia would provide the foundation for a storied career that spread across the globe. Fechin was never content with merely capturing a likeness on canvas, but rather strove to portray a dignity and inner spirit of each sitter, whether a poor Russian peasant, a New York member of society, a Balinese dancer, or the artist's most revered subject, the American Indian. Fechin's Taos portraits were not the result of costly commissions. Instead, like the great Ashcan artist and teacher, Robert Henri, (fig. 1) who also spent time painting portraits in New Mexico, the artist chose his sitters based on the vitality and character they emanated. Fechin was particularly intrigued with children and produced a body of work later in his career that focused primarily on this subject. They have come to be considered some of his finest achievements. The success of these works, such as Friends, relies on Fechin's ability to interact with his sitter and translate onto canvas a profoundly mesmerizing image that transcends a mere rendition of a child's face and dress.
Fechin biographer Mary N. Balcomb writes "The work from Taos is exceptional. The portraits are acutely psychological, compassionate, penetrating studies of character, scrutinizing the soul of man...Fechin's Taos portraits are masterfully executed, timeless. Each is a highly individualized study, yet possessing a generalization or universal quality which evokes memories and associations that relate to all people everywhere." (Nicolai Fechin, pp. 74, 78) These qualities are evident in Friends, where Fechin creates a beautiful and complex composition of a child gazing confidently at the viewer while her dog's head rests peacefully on her lap. The artist's strong draftsmanship is visible in the self-assured rendering of the sitter's face and eyes. The hair and clothing are painted in an abstract riot of color, applied with rapid, deft strokes of a palette knife and full of artistic energy and vitality.
"The years in Taos were very kind to Fechin in many respects. He had found contentment with the abundance of subject material from which to select his work. He could not have dreamed of a more spacious or attractive home and studio. Furthermore, the work he was doing was in demand and was being accorded new laurels of praise wherever his paintings were shown. Writing in the April 17, 1930 issue of Los Angeles Express, Alma May Cook described Fechin's exhibition of paintings as "the most notable ever shown in Los Angeles...a technique worthy of a Rembrandt...[Fechin's work is] the art of the old masters, possibly more than any other painter of modern times...an art that is truly a gift to the gods." (as quoted in H. McCracken, Nicolai Fechin, New York, 1961, p. 13)
Friends exemplifies all of the qualities that make Fechin's images of Taos children some of the artist's most coveted work. Fechin's heralded painting technique combined with his respect and admiration of the American Indian culture enabled him to produce works such as the present painting that now remain as iconic images of humanity.