- Nicolai Fechin
- Bearing Away the Bride, 1908
- signed in Cyrillic (lower left)
- oil on canvas
- 73 by 111 in., 185.5 by 282 cm
George A. Hearn, New York, 1911 (acquired from the Fifteenth Annual International Exhibition)
Laura Frances Hearn, New York, 1913
Sale: American Art Galleries, New York, Sale of the Collection of the Late George A. Hearn, February 27, 1918, lot 262, illustrated
George B. Wheeler, New York
Clarkson Cowl, New York
Sale: American Art Galleries, New York, Sale of the Collection of the Late George A. Hearn, May 5, 1932, lot 88
August Sonnin Krebs, Delaware
Helen Krebs, Santa Fe
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, 1975 (gifted directly from the above)
St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg Academy of the Arts, 1908
Munich, Glaspalast (Glass Palace), International Exhibition of the Künstlergenossenschaft, 1910
Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, Fifteenth Annual International Exhibition, April-June 1911
New York, Vanderbilt Gallery, Sixth Annual Winter Exhibition of the National Academy of Design, December 1911-January 1912
New York, Salmagundi Art Club Gallery, February 1912
Brooklyn, Brooklyn Museum, Exhibition of Russian Painting and Sculpture, 1923, no. 76
Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, Special Exhibition of Paintings by Nikolai Fechin, December 18-January 20, 1924, no. 2
Oklahoma City, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (permanent collection), 1975-2011
"Annual Carnegie Institute Exhibition," American Art News, vol. IX, no. 29, April 29, 1911, p. 4
"A Fair Exhibit," American Art News, vol. X, no. 9, December 9, 1911, p. 7
"Fechin's Clever Canvas," American Art News, vol. X, no. 12, December 30, 1911, p. 1, illustrated
"The Salmagundi Auction Sale of Paintings Will be Held in February," The New York Times, February 4, 1912
"Hearn Art Objects Shown to Public," The New York Times, February 20, 1918, p. 8
"Daubigny Painting Leads Hearn Sale," The New York Times, February 28, 1918, p. 9
"Brooklyn Museum Shows Russian Art," American Art News, vol. XXI, no. 16, January 27, 1923, p. 6
C. Brinton, Exhibition of Russian Paintings and Sculpture, New York, 1923, no. 76
C. Brinton, Special Exhibition of Paintings by Nikolai Fechin, Chicago, 1924, no. 2
H. McCracken, Nicolai Fechin, New York, 1961, p. 8
S. Konenkov, Nicolai Fechin: Documents, Letters, Remembrances about the Artist, Leningrad, 1974, p. 144
M. Balcomb, Nicolai Fechin, Flagstaff, Arizona, 1975, pp. 10-12, illustrated
C. Schroeder, D. Dary, S.H. McGarry, et al., A Western Legacy: National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Norman, Oklahoma, 2005, pp. 12, 26, 241
State Tretyakov Gallery, Late 19th Century-Early 20th Century Paintings: Catalogue of the Collection, vol. 5, Moscow, 2005, p. 383
G. Tuluzakova, Nikolai Fechin, St. Petersburg, 2007, pp. 56-57, no. 15, illustrated
State Russian Museum (Palace Editions), Nicolai Fechin, St. Petersburg, 2011, pp. 10 and 47, illustrated
As rich in color and texture as it is in detail, Bearing Away the Bride is Nicolai Fechin's most significant and monumental canvas ever to appear at auction. It is the key painting of his exceptionally rare Russian period that defined him as a mature artist, having arrived at the distinct style and ethnographic interests that would characterize his long and prosperous career.
Born in the provincial capital of Kazan in 1881, Fechin displayed an inherent talent for draughtsmanship at a very early age. He received his earliest training in his father's gilding and joinery workshop, where he learned the basic skills of icon painting and cabinetry required for the construction of the vast icon screens (iconostases) decorating Orthodox churches. This preparation allowed him admittance to the Art School of Kazan, a recently opened branch of the St. Petersburg Academy, where he performed so well that he was among the few students admitted to the Academy, and fewer still who were selected to study with its most legendary professor, the painter Ilya Repin. Repin pushed the young Fechin to experiment beyond portraiture and explore historical and genre painting as well. When political turmoil and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 led to the temporary closure of the Academy, Fechin was left to study independently. He later recounted the sudden and empowering creative freedom he experienced:
We, the students, were actually left to our own resources. These last two years were the most essential to me as an artist. The fact was that during all of my scholastic study I worked as I saw others work and, technically, did not differ from them. The routine demands of the school depressed rather than improved the student. Now that we were left alone, without supervision, it became necessary to be responsible for ourselves and we worked with more diligence than ever before. There was no one to praise or deride so I, for the first time, began to work experimentally and the very first winter my technique changed radically. The difficulties which one had to overcome alone stimulated one's energies and love toward industrious work. Mainly, it delighted me that something was being arrived at that was my own and did not resemble other (Balcomb, pp. 8-9).
These final years at the Academy were spent preparing compositions for competitions with his peers, the last of which offered the coveted Prix de Rome, a generous award allowing the student a year of educational travel. Fechin tirelessly developed his portfolio in preparation for this final examination. Executed in this competitive and intensely creative atmosphere, Bearing Away the Bride is among the most singularly accomplished works of the artist's oeuvre; its sheer size alone set it apart from all other paintings:
My new canvas fitted into the room only on a diagonal. The light from the low cut windows was so poor that the upper half of the painting was in perpetual dusk. In order to see the results of my work, I was obliged to lie flat on the floor beneath the picture and peer up. In spite of all the discomforts, I did finish this painting. It was a success (Balcomb, p. 10).
The work was inspired by Fechin's travels to remote villages outside Kazan during the summers of 1906 and 1907, where he encountered members of the Cheremis (now Mari) and Mordva tribes, who shared related, ancient Finnic tongues, and the Chuvash, a Turkic people who lived in many regions of Russia. Like his contemporaries Nicholas Roerich, Natalia Goncharova and even Wassily Kandinsky, artists who studied the folk art and material culture of the greater Russian Empire to inform their modern art, Fechin was profoundly interested in the lives and customs of these paganistic peoples, whom he depicted in an extensive series of studies and preparatory sketches now in the collections of various Russian museums (figs 1-2).
The final composition depicts a traditional wedding ritual performed by the Cheremis in the village of Lipsha and how it had been transformed by the introduction of Christianity. According to the native custom, which 19th-century Orthodox missionaries had tried to eradicate, the newlyweds would return to their respective childhood homes after the wedding ceremony itself and remain apart for an entire week. Then the groom would go at last to his wife and escort her to their future home. The painting captures that very moment of this rite of passage, as the entire village gathers round to observe. Fechin depicts the bride in white, her face hidden behind a veil, as she clutches an Orthodox icon bearing the holy image with which she was blessed, while beside her hovers the village matchmaker, dressed in traditional and vividly colored textiles. The groom waits anxiously at the horse-drawn carriage while his inebriated best man, draped in a customary cloth embroidered by the bride, steadies himself against the horse at left. Musicians beat on cow bladder drums and other traditional instruments while joyous bridesmaids sing and dance in the background, ready to follow the caravan.
Surely informed by Repin's own approach to form, the image evinces stylized qualities typical of Russian Impressionism in the early 1900s. A profound colorist, Fechin renders the image in a brilliant patchwork of rich, dimly glowing colors—"somehow reminiscent of sumac berry, alder bark, and the thistle dyes on soft wool" and thus distinctly evoking the traditional ornament and textiles of the people he represents (Balcomb, p. 10). Meanwhile, Bearing Away the Bride glimmers as a complex and piercing display of peasant culture in transition; it immortalizes the changing practices of native pagans who were forcibly Christianized by the Russian state.
The painting won first prize at the Academy's annual Exposition in 1908, where it captured the attention of several critics and instantly catapulted Fechin to the forefront of public attention. One observer wrote that Fechin's output was "unquestionably the most interesting in the Exhibition" (McCracken, p. 8). For his final composition submission during his last year at the Academy, Fechin returned to imagery of the Cheremis, this time depicting the traditional custom of cabbage-salting, or kapusnitza, in his masterpiece Gathering of the Cabbage Crop (fig 3), which in fact won Fechin the Prix de Rome and remains in the Academy's collection. Fechin was also awarded the coveted title of "Artist" and was officially appointed a professor at the Kazan Art School, where he would teach for the next ten years. First, however, he traveled throughout Europe, visiting such cultural centers as Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Paris and Florence, all the while observing the latest developments in European painting.
Over the next decade Bearing Away the Bride continued to make waves across Russia and abroad, increasing Fechin's preeminent status as one of Russia's finest and most famous painters. Not all responses were positive however; some more conservative critics feared that the work offered a crude and embarrassing portrayal of the "primitive" peoples of the Russian hinterlands–one that might be misunderstood by foreigners as a typical representation of Russians. The critic Evseeff lamented, "Talented, but indiscreet Fechin had sent his picture from Kazan. It is simply vexing that this man, possessing all the qualities of an artist, spoils the picture on purpose...One can only see one monster after another, nothing more" (Ibid.). Despite some controversy, the painting was sent to Munich in 1910 and exhibited at the International Exhibition of the Künstlergenossenschaft, where it caught the eye of European critics and won Fechin a prestigious gold medal. The following year, American viewers were first able to see his oeuvre at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, and in 1911 Bearing Away the Bride was shown there as part of the Fifteenth Annual International Exhibition.
It was at the Carnegie exhibition that the painting caught the eye of famed New York merchant and art collector George Arnold Hearn (1835-1913) who purchased it on the spot. Hearn was a significant promoter of contemporary American art at the turn of the century, and his fine collection featured masterworks by such artists as George Inness, Horatio Walker, Francis Murphy and Charles Harold Davis. He was also a patron to several New York art organizations including the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, the Cooper Union and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he was a trustee and extremely important benefactor, donating a significant part of his collection to the institution in 1906.
Hearn readily loaned Bearing Away the Bride to multiple exhibitions, including the Sixth Annual Winter Exhibition at the National Academy of Design in December of 1911 and the 1912 exhibition at the Salmagundi Art Club. At the National Academy of Design, the work was displayed prominently on the north wall of the Vanderbilt Gallery throughout the exhibition, and American Art News highlighted the work in an article, stating "This canvas, a remarkable work, in the cleverness of its technique, character, expression, and story-telling quality, was fully described and praised in the review of the Carnegie Exhibition...It is a pleasure to know such a remarkably strong picture has come into the possession of so appreciative and generous an art patron as Mr. Hearn, and that it will remain in the country" (vol. X, no. 9, p. 7).
Hearn passed away in 1913, leaving the remainder of his collection to his widow, Laura Frances Hearn, and five years later it was sold by the American Art Association in a landmark auction. So vast was the quantity and array of works on offer—including not only paintings and sculpture but also Chinese works of art and ivory—that the sale was scheduled over a series of five nights. Remarkably successful, the auction achieved new records for several American artists, and Bearing Away the Bride sold for $1,500 to George B. Wheeler, Hearn's widowed son-in-law, who bought several lots in the sale. Thus this painting remained in the Hearn family collection well into the Great Depression, when it was sold once again by the American Art Association in May 1932. Before this second sale, Wheeler transferred the painting to Clarkson Cowl, another of Hearn's son-in-laws, and it was loaned to multiple shows including Christian Brinton's groundbreaking exhibitions of Russian art at the Brooklyn Museum in 1923 and the Art Institute of Chicago in 1924.
The painting was purchased from its second American Art Association sale by August Sonnin Krebs, the former president of Krebs Pigment and Chemical Company. He later bequeathed it to Helen Krebs of Santa Fe, New Mexico, who donated it to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame (now the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum) in Oklahoma City in 1975 through the assistance of Hammer Galleries.
It is worth noting that the international popularity of Fechin's artwork, and that of Bearing Away the Bride in particular, helped the artist connect with several American patrons, without whom he could not have emigrated from Russia to America in 1923. His later reputation rests not on the commissioned society portraits he painted during his brief stay in New York, but rather on his iconic depictions of the native peoples of the Taos Pueblo. The mountains there reminded Fechin of Siberia, and the Native Americans he portrayed–with their vibrant textiles and paganistic, forcibly Christianized traditions–offered an extraordinary analogy to the Cheremis people he had depicted two decades prior. Thus it may be said that Bearing Away the Bride, Fechin's first and most monumental rendering of the native peoples of Russia, serves not only as the picture that launched his artistic career, but also as the cornerstone for understanding its progression.