Nicolai Ivanovich Fechin is an acknowledged master of portrait and genre-scene paintings. The subject of his genre scenes is usually either Russian or non-Slavonic village rituals and holidays (e.g. A Cheremis wedding, 1908, Cabbage fest, 1909, Dousing with water, 1914?) or the activities of the urban working class (e.g. The slaughterhouse, 1911-1916). For his portraits he selected his models (with the exception of the numerous portraits of his father, himself a workman) from among the intelligentsia, giving preference to people in the arts. In his genre works Fechin often exaggerated, focussing on the grotesque. In his portraits however, the artist preferred to depict an ideal state of humanity; while he never distorted facial features, the poses and gestures of his sitters are sometimes somewhat mannered. This exaggeration or emphasis on sophistication is one external manifestation of the modern aesthetic, in which everyday life acquires beauty through an artist's interpretation.
Fechin is an exceptional painter of children's portraits. In his depictions of both village children and well-to-do girls and boys, he immediately captures the soft fleshiness of a child, the freshness of their young faces, their vitality and restlessness and sincere openness to the world. His works are entirely devoid of inertia, and it is precisely this impression of a snatched moment from a dynamic sequence that characterises his portraits and sketches, and particularly those of children. The artist was not overly sentimental when painting children; the children in his portraits are full-blooded characters, and yet there is always a moment of admiration for young life emerging. The study Little shepherd boy was painted in 1910 when Fechin had just completed his studies at the Imperial Academy of Arts and having returned from his scholarship-funded trip to Western Europe, had started working at the Kazan Art School on a permanent basis. At this time he often painted studies of children, amongst which are included such masterpieces as the Portrait of Nina Belkovich (1910), Portrait of a little girl (circa 1910, Vyatskii Art Museum named after V. M and A. M. Vasnetsov,Kirov) and others.
This portrait of a boy brilliantly combines the improvisation and freely painted attributes of a quick sketch with the integrity of a finished composition. The unusual view-point and the selected angle reveal the artist's exceptional skill. The figure of the child, released, as it were, from the freely applied painterly stream, is not lost in the painting's impasto. If the face and hands are highlighted via contrasting painting techniques and more thoroughly fused brushwork, the background and the figure are moulded via comparably broad brush-strokes. In this manner, the body is provided with an anatomically correct structure, while the dense painterly background paradoxically creates a sense of space. The dark,restrained palette, stretching from black to white, is composed of an infinite variety of shades of ochre, brown and grey with inserts of pure touches of red and green. This study of a smiling, amiable boy combines the characteristics of a portrait and a genre sketch.
The colouristic essence of Little shepherd boy is close to that of A boy from Chuvashia (1900s, Chuvash State Art Museum,
Cheboksary) and Portrait of a little girl while the manner in which the hands are painted is very typical of the artist, and can be compared with those of the slightly later study, Boy with a bare stomach (1914?, State Museum of Fine Art, Kazan) for the multi-figure composition Dousing with water (1914, StateMuseum of Fine Art, Kazan).
Until now, this study could only be assessed on the basis of a reproduction held in the archive of the artist's family in America. The study of archival documents and exhibition catalogues allows us to suggest that Little shepherd boy may have been in the collection of William. S. Stimmel, Fechin's first American collector. This suggestion is made on the basis that the 1910 work could have come to America in a number of ways: exhibitions, direct acquisition from the artist by Stimmel or J.R. Hunter, who from 1910-1914 selected works from photographs, or it could have been amongst the pictures Fechin took from Russia when he emigrated to the USA. In the catalogues from 1910-1914 and the preserved list of exported works, there is no suitable title for this work, excluding untraceable unidentified studies without titles. However, there is a Little peasant boy included in the list of works from the Stimmel collection that J. R. Hunter wrote at I. N. Feshin's request, which was exhibited by Stimmel in Fechin's solo exhibition at the Arden Gallery in 1924. It is therefore very likely that Little peasant boy is in fact the present work, now entitled Little shepherd boy.
We are grateful to Dr Galina Tuluzakova for providing this catalogue entry.