Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955)
Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955)

The Little Burro

Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955)
The Little Burro
signed 'N. Fechin' (lower right)
oil on board
10½ x 14 in. (26.7 x 35.6 cm.)
The artist.
Katherine Benepe Shackelford, circa 1944.
San Buenaventura, California, Ventura County Museum of History and Art, Art of the American West from County Collections, June-August 1985, p. 3

Lot Essay

Born in Kazan, Russia in 1881, Nicolai Fechin obtained his academic training from the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg. With the onset of the Bolshevic Revolution and World War I, life was very arduous in Russia and Fechin immigrated to New York with his wife, Alexandra, and their daughter, Eya in 1923. He quickly established himself as a portrait painter and teacher in American but in 1926 he contracted tuberculosis and was advised to seek a dry, clean climate to ensure his full recovery. He and his family set out for California and soon after arriving, his friend and fellow artist, John Young-Hunter invited him to visit Taos, New Mexico, a burgeoning art colony. "Here, amid the grandeur of the Sangre de Christo Mountains, his eyes were opened to the picturesque Indians and Spaniards, with their ancient pueblos rich in tradition and in icon-decorated churches reminiscent of the conquistadors. Here was a backdrop of extravagant history studded with the legendary tales and characters of an exciting pioneer era. Here Nicolai Fechin found a real home." (Harold McCracken, Nicolai Fechin, New York, New York, 1961, p. 13)

The Little Burro was painted during Fechin's time in this beautiful land of intense light and color, and is a lovely example of the artist's unique style of painting. Using pure color applied directly onto the canvas with the broad strokes of a palette knife and brush, Fechin modeled the profile of a saddled burro in a landscape of bold, flat, abstracted planes of color. As is typical of the artist's style, Fechin discarded his artist's tools in order to rework and refine the animal's features directly with his thumb.

In the 1930's, Fechin moved to Santa Monica, California and taught Saturday afternoon classes at his rural, wooded canyon studio. Katherine Benepe Shackelford attended the Saturday classes and she, along with a small number of other students, traveled with her mentor to Mexico City to paint in 1936. Fechin gave Katherine The Little Burro around 1944. She spoke about the painting in a letter to Kay Haley in 1982: "It is with much pleasure to me that my painting "The Little Burro" by Nicolai Fechin passes into your possession and keeping. It was painted while he still lived in Taos, New Mexico, and I consider it the best of his little burros and horses. It is more than just a picture to me, as it was his gift to me about 1944, and knowing you love it and that I can see it due to your hospitality makes me very happy." (letter from Katherine Shackelford to Kay Haley, August 30, 1982)