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Russian Art

Fechin Portrait in Private Hands Since 1908 Still Thrills

George Arnold Hearn, the first owner of Fechin’s Portrait of Nadezhda Sapozhnikova, was an American philanthropist who originally made his fortune in dry goods and built up a significant collection of art. He bequeathed over fifty paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and another 450 were sold on his death in 1918. Portraiture was a particular strength of his collection which included examples by Rex Whistler and John Singer Sargent, Joshua Reynolds, Sir Peter Lely and of course, Nikolai Fechin.

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NIKOLAI FECHIN, PORTRAIT OF NADEZHDA SAPOZHNIKOVA, 1908. ESTIMATE: £1,200,000–1,800,000.

Hearn acquired the portrait at the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh in 1910, the reviews of which went into raptures over Fechin and the two portraits he contributed. “Some of the cleverest work in the display is undoubtedly contributed by the Russian [painter] Nikolai Fechin”, “the portrait… has the most dexterous technique imaginable and throbs with vitality”, “the use of pigment in the brocaded apron is worth the journey to Pittsburgh to see and study”.

Portrait of Nadezhda Sapozhnikova, painted by Fechin in his final year of study at the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts, is exceptional in its virtuosity. The large-scale portrait, in which the inevitably static nature of a seated figure is transformed into a dynamic whirlwind, depicts the explosive energy of youth. The subject of the skittishly inclined young woman determines the diagonal construction of the composition; the precisely marked rhythms of the turn of her head and the emotive gestures of her magnificently modelled hands; the considered but seemingly spontaneous alternating between light and dark within the limits of a very refined, muted palette of browns and ochre, running the gamut from black to white and interspersed with glimmering flashes of blue. What sets the painting apart, is the juxtaposition of different textures, the combination of brilliant academic draughtsmanship with the no-less brilliant freedom of the paint application.

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NIKOLAI FECHIN, PORTRAIT OF NADEZHDA SAPOZHNIKOVA, (DETAIL) 1908. ESTIMATE: £1,200,000–1,800,000.

The painting was then acquired by William Stimmel at the sensational 1918 sale of Hearn’s collection. Stimmel was a dealer whose interest was immediately piqued by Fechin at the Pittsburgh exhibition and he together with John Burnham took on the role of Fechin’s patron eventually arranging for the artist to immigrate to the United States in 1923.

John Burnham was the son of Daniel Burnham, the architect of many of the best known buildings of the early 20th century. These included much of Chicago, Penn Station, the iconic Flatiron Building in New York and the grand Beaux-Arts Selfridges building in London. By the time Daniel Burnham died in 1912 his firm was the largest in the world. John had founded a Chicago investment banking firm which was successful enough for him to retire in his forties in 1924 and move to California to devote his time to art and painting.

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NIKOLAI FECHIN, PORTRAIT OF JOHN BURNHAM, 1925. FECHIN PAINTED PORTRAITS OF BOTH HIS PATRONS, STIMMEL AND BURNHAM, IN 1925.

On retiring to California, Burnham and his wife Catherine Wheeler Burnham bought Ellis Bishop house, at the time the finest house in Rancho Santa Fe and the recipient of numerous architectural awards, in the early 1930s. The painting’s new home was then converted into a convalescent home for naval officers during the Second World War when, in an incredible gesture of patriotism, the Burnhams handed over their property to the US Navy for a period of three years. The luxurious surroundings complete with world-class art collection obviously did the patients a lot of good for according to war records the officers made a speedier recovery than they did elsewhere. The painting remained there until the 1970s when the house was sold and Catherine Wheeler Burnham donated it to the San Diego Museum of Fine Art where it has remained until this day.

CLICK HERE to view the full sale catalogue.

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