Born in Kazan, Russia in 1881, Nicolai Fechin obtained his academic training from the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg. It was there that he quickly developed his unique style of painting. Using pure color applied directly onto the canvas with broad strokes of a palette knife, Fechin would often discard his artist's tools and use his thumb to rework the finer qualities of his paintings. He believed that the world around him was changing rapidly, and felt it important to accurately record life in the moment. Through this energetic display, his work seemed to take on abstract qualities.
With the onset of the Bolshevic Revolution and World War I, life became very arduous for Fechin and he moved to the United States where he settled in New York City in 1923. Because of his bold and unique approach to painting, he was quickly accepted into the thriving artist community there. He was particularly impressed with Alfred Stieglitz's 291 Gallery and greatly admired the work of Georgia O'Keeffe who exhibited there. Although he found work as a teacher and portrait painter, ultimately he found New York to be overwhelming and decided to head west to New Mexico.
In Taos, Fechin found great success and fulfillment in the area's bountiful sources of inspiration. The artist sold many of his paintings before they were complete and received high praise whenever they were exhibited. In The Los Angeles Express, Alma May Cook described an exhibition of Fechin's work as "the most notable ever shown in Los Angeles, a technique worthy of Rembrandt. [Fechin's work is] the art of old masters, possibly more than any other painter of modern times, an art that is truly a gift of the gods." (A.M. Cook, The Los Angeles Express, April 17, 1930)
Duane Van Vechten, the subject of the present work, was an integral figure in Taos in the first half of the twentieth century, both as an artist and as an influential patron. She was the foster daughter of the prominent Chicago banker, Ralph Van Vechten and niece of Carl Van Vechten, a writer, artist and noted music and drama critic for The New York Times. Carl was a patron of the Harlem Renaissance and became involved with many avant-garde artists of his day as well as a close friend of Georgia O'Keeffe, Martha Graham, Gertrude Stein and Mabel Dodge Lujan. This devotion to the arts was imparted to Duane who settled in Taos in the 1920s after attending art school in New York and Chicago. Although she was a dedicated painter and worked amongst the most prominent members of the Taos Society of Artists, Van Vechten rarely exhibited her work and her paintings remained relatively unknown until the opening of the Van Vechten-Lineberry Taos Art Museum, established by Duane's husband and philanthropist, Ed Lineberry. A 1995 article featuring the artist comments, "Van Vechten's portrait work is outstanding, but she painted all types of subjects and did them well. The most astonishing thing about Van Vechten's work, according to museum visitors, is that it has been unknown for so many years. Now, however, Taos' most underappreciated painter will undoubtedly become one of its best-known." (Southwest Art Magazine, October 1995) As both a contemporary of and critical patron to many new artists settling in Taos, Van Vechten forged lasting personal relationships with several artists, most notably, Nicolai Fechin, who painted with Duane and carved many of the decorative wooden elements in her Taos studio.
In Portrait of Duane, with an aggressive and yet elegant balance of color, line and form, Fechin achieves a harmonious composition that brilliantly captures the personality of his sitter, while at the same time demonstrates the virtuosity of the artist. "The artist must not forget that he is dealing with the entire canvas, and not with only one section of it. Regardless of what else 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. There must not be any particularly favored spot in the painting. It must be remembered that one false note in a symphony orchestra disrupts the harmony of the whole." (as quoted in M.N. Balcomb, Nicolai Fechin, San Cristobal, New Mexico, 1999 ed., p. 159)
Thick strokes of viscous paint are applied rapidly with brush and palette knife, making bold juxtapositions of color appear to layer naturally. "It must not be forgotten that unadulterated paints fresh from the tube are beautiful, intense and clear, and only when one begins to mix them do they lose these vibrant qualities. The artist's problem of retaining the true pure strength of color depends on keeping the pigments separate and individually distinct. Mixing paints has definite limitations and only certain combinations of the three basic ones continue to provide clear and vital colors." (p. 160) The vitality of Fechin's palette and brushwork captures the sophisticated beauty and unique presence of Duane Van Vechten, making the present work one of the artist's most glorious portraits.