Taos Art Museum at Fechin House, Taos
November 4, 2017 – January 31, 2018
The Taos Art Museum at Fechin House has recently completed the reinstallation of portions of their permanent collection on the museum’s first floor. The collection highlights the work of the Russian émigré Nicolai Fechin and members of the Taos Society of Artists. The exhibition also unveils the role that several prominent women played in the history of modernism in Taos.
When entering the museum, the first painting on view is Coral Beads, a striking 1910 portrait of Alexandra Belcovitch, Fechin’s wife, completed before they were married and while they were still living in Russia. The painting captures the fourteen-year-old Alexandra appearing poised and reserved. The composition of this early Fechin painting reflects the style of his teacher, Ilya Repin, the most notable Russian painter of the nineteenth century and master of portraiture. Her sideways glance, also prominent in Repin’s work, avoids the direct gaze of the viewer (and in this case Fechin himself) as she prominently displays her coral necklace—a material that occupies a prominent position in Russian history. Rare types, referred to alternatively as monysto or korali, could be quite costly and are traditional symbols of health and youth. These elaborate necklaces also were used as amulets that protected the wearer from evil spirits.
Both Fechin and Belcovitch (nicknamed Tinka) carried their Russian heritage with them to Taos. Their home was adorned with Eastern Orthodox icons and a corner altar—common in Slavic homes—as well as extensive woodwork, a craft shared by Russians and Southwestern artists. Belcovitch, the aristocratic daughter of the head of the Kazan Academy of Art, was a polyglot and a writer, whose eloquent and moving book of short stories about revolutionary Russia, March of the Past, was published in 1937, four years after her separation from Fechin. While Fechin, who never learned English, had moved to New York and then southern California with their daughter, Eya, Belcovitch stayed in Taos for the rest of her life. Her grave, marked by a large Russian Orthodox cross, is on the grounds of the Fechin house, surrounded by her beloved garden.
The Fechin House’s reorganization of their permanent collection brings to light directly or indirectly several early women artists. Eleanor Kissel (1891-1966), whom Fechin painted in 1933, grew up in New York and studied at the Art Students League. Always fascinated by the West, Kissel embarked on a cross-country trip and ended up settling in Taos in 1926. Returning to northern New Mexico every summer, she completed work on her own studio in 1929. Fechin’s portrait of her, done during his last year in Taos, shows the artist in a pensive pose against a neutral background. Her red dress frames her and focuses the viewer’s eye on her expressive facial features.
Catharine Critcher’s The Young Hunter is a striking example of the work of the only female member of the Taos Society of Artists. Critcher (1868-1964), who became an active member in 1924 at the age of fifty-six, was a Virginia native who was educated at Cooper Union in New York, the Corcoran School in Washington D.C., and Académie Julian in Paris. After her election to the TSA, she wrote to her friend, Powell Minnigerodel, the director of the Corcoran, “You will be pleased, I know, to hear that a letter just received from Mr. Couse informs me that I have been unanimously elected to active membership in the Taos Society of Artists. It is nice to be the first and only woman in it. I am feeling very good about it.” The undated The Young Hunter in the Fechin collection is a rather dramatic profile portrait of an unknown sitter. He is presented with a pronounced chin, slight smile, and a full head of hair. Silhouetted against a dark background, his hunting jacket is abstracted with expressive brushstrokes and broad swatches of greens and grays.
The unveiling of women artists and writers who contributed to modernism is an exciting part of a larger, more well-known Taos narrative. Alongside works from the teens and 1920s by Ernest Blumenschein, Joseph Henry Sharp, W. Herbert Dunton, and other members of the Taos Society of Artists, the contributions of Catharine Critcher, Alexandra Belcovitch Fechin, and Eleanor Kissel enrich and expand our understanding of the first decades of the twentieth century in Northern New Mexico.