3 June 2015
Peasant Woman Sitting on a Trunk
Oil on canvas, 78.5 by 100 cm.
Executed in the 1910s.
Provenance: Private collection, Europe.
Literature: G. Tuluzakova, Nikolai Ivanovich Fechin, St Petersburg, Zolotoi Vek, 2007, p. 30, illustrated.
G. Tuluzakova, Nikolai Fechin, The Art and the Life, San Cristobal, Fechin Art Reproductions, 2012, p. 222, illustrated.
The famous Russian-American painter Nikolai Fechin is represented by a splendid canvas from his Russian period – Peasant Woman Sitting on a Trunk. The work was painted in the middle of the decade that began in 1910. Only a short time earlier, in 1909, the artist had graduated from the Imperial Academy of Arts (under the tutelage of Ilya Repin) and returned to his native Kazan, where he taught at the local Academy of Art.
In the story of the master’s life as an artist, the Russian chapter – in terms of its creative inventiveness and the breakthroughs – is perhaps the most interesting. As the second decade of the 1900s began, Fechin was developing his unique manner of painting, at the basis of which lay the original principle – borrowed from Italian miniaturists – of a ground prepared with casein glue. When Fechin prepared a similar base, he achieved the startling effect of a matt glow to the surface of his canvases, where the casein ground absorbed the oils of the binding medium, leaving only the coloured pigments on the surface of the canvas. The combination of ochreous and silvery colours emitted a muted glow, spellbinding in its astonishingly harmonious chromatic spectrum.
Peasant Woman Sitting on a Trunk should be seen not only as a magnificent example of Nikolai Fechin’s painting from his early “Kazan” period, but also as a reflection of the deep-rooted trends arising in Russian art in the decade beginning 1910. It is at this time that the quest for a national image or, in Gleb Pospelov’s words, “a certain indigenous aspect ... even “face” of Russia” becomes one of the key tendencies of Russian culture. The directions taken by the avant garde at the beginning of the 20th century, with its interest in archaic art, folklore and primitivism, were born out of attempts to reconnect with origins of humanity, to come to know the ancient conditions of mankind’s being and the basic principles of human existence. The desire to feel the genuine, elemental and spontaneous energy lying deep beneath the veneer of civilisation that represses the “natural human being”, and to dig down to the basic foundations of nation-building, lead to a heightened interest amongst artists in the life of the peasantry and lower urban strata. The “peasant women” of Philip Maliavin, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Zinaida Serebriakova and Abram Arkhipov, the “Raseya” of Boris Grogoriev, the genre historical paintings by Andrei Ryabushkin, the “merchants’ wives” of Boris Kustodiev – all of these are merely different facets of the same general movement towards a national “basic”, ranging from the idealistic to the grotesquely expressive.
It is therefore no surprise that in his final years at the Imperial Academy of Arts, Fechin – whose attuned senses perceived the zeitgeist of the time – would choose common folk and traditional ways of life as subjects for his academic projects. One of his earliest experiments, Cheremiss Wedding, with its unbridled tumult of ancient ritual, would in 1908 win him the first prize at the Academy exhibition. The following year in 1909, working on his painting Cabbage Fest for the graduation competition, he would again address the theme of country festivities in portraying the communal process of pickling cabbage for the winter and masterfully render the vibrancy and colourful splendour of this farming ritual.
Fechin’s life in the Bohemian society of St Petersburg and his academic training ensured that he would approach the rustic images he had known from childhood with a detachment and through the lens of the “new art”. Early in the decade that began in 1910, Fechin’s pictures of the life of common folk became increasingly popular not only in Russia, but also abroad.
Among these, Peasant Woman Sitting on a Trunk is by no means a random painting, but rather the result of the artist’s painstaking work in the genre of peasant portraiture. The work offered here is an interior scene depicting a seated elderly woman, looking attentively but slightly warily at the viewer. The particular way her headscarf is tied, the details of the interior and the wooden trunk seen farther inside the room with its metal latticework, are reminiscent of the ethnic peculiarities of everyday life among Chuvash and Tatar villagers in the hinterland of the Volga. The impression is that the model is simultaneously posing and being spontaneous.
Fechin was always interested in simple yet distinctive characters, in the unique features of national ethnicities and their domestic interiors. It is no accident that the artist’s favourite themes were local festivals and merrymaking, which he recorded with such insight in his brilliant paintings Cheremiss Wedding and A Dousing. The model attracts the artist with her naturalness and authentic beauty. Fechin masterfully captures the individual and transforms it into the typical. His portrayal of a particular peasant woman can be seen as a symbol of the era, an embodiment in one person.
There are practically no details in the portrait and all attention is concentrated purely on two main points – her face and the bow on her blouse. Nonetheless, the form has volume and is sculpted in lush colour. The sense of volume in Fechin’s compositions is achieved through his masterly use of tone. Despite the absolute freedom and expansiveness of his style, the texture of the drapery and furniture has been wonderfully rendered in this picture, along with attention to the tiniest details; the eyelids and pupils of the eyes, the age of character’s skin, the characteristic fold of the fingers and even the shine of the fingernails.
The setting is deprived of specifics, yet contributes to the overall dynamics of the composition by organising the colour and texture of the picture’s structure. The strokes of impasto, diverse in form and direction, are freely applied using a large, flat brush and touched in occasionally with a palette knife to form particularly decorative spaces. The softened, subtle palette, with its emphasis on red, becomes an important means of expressing the emotional tone of the portrait. The painterly textures and rhythmic patches of tone and colour all play a crucial role in creating the image; however, the Expressionist tendencies do not stray into the grotesque or become overplayed – as was frequently the case in other artist’s portraits of the period. Rather, they allow him to create a vibrant, eye-catching and yet harmonious image of a Russian woman. Fechin strives to preserve this impression of immediacy by giving the composition a slightly incomplete look. It is in these years that the non finito principle becomes a deliberate feature of the artist’s work.
Only a few portraits by Fechin from this period remain in Russian museums and private collections; therefore, the appearance of such a famous work on the market should not go unnoticed by connoisseurs of art.
Notes on symbols:
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