Taos Art Museum opened in 1994. Eight years later it moved to the beautiful and historic Nicolai Fechin home. The Museum is dedicated to the art of early twentieth century Taos. The museum is housed in the studio and home that artist Nicolai Fechin built for his family between 1927 and 1933. Fechin, born in Kazan, Russia in 1881, carved and molded the adobe buildings into a fascinating, harmonic marriage of Russian, Native American, and Spanish motifs. Fechin's heirs have entrusted many of his art works to the care of Taos Art Museum.
The heart of the museum is a collection of paintings by the masters of the Taos Society of Artists. This group was prolific from the arrival in Taos of Blumenschein and Phillips in 1898 through the 1930s. As a result of the acclaim these artists and their associates achieved, many more artists migrated to Taos, continuing a tradition of creativity into the twenty-first century.
The Taos Art Museum at Fechin House
January 2003 marked the formal beginning of New Mexico's newest museum, The Taos Art Museum at Fechin House. (Began moving in September 2002.)
In 1923, renowned Russian artist Nicolai Fechin, his wife, Alexandra, and their daughter, Eya, emigrated from Russia to New York City. In 1927, at the invitation of Taos patroness Mabel Dodge Luhan and the encouragement of artist John Young-Hunter, the Fechin family traveled to Taos. After a brief and unhappy stay in "Mabel's Palace," the Fechins decided that it was time for a home of their own. In the early winter of 1927, they acquired the property of Dr. and Mrs. Bergman, a Dutch couple who were returning to their native Holland. The Fechins moved into the house, located on the main street of Taos, Paseo del Pueblo Norte. They lived there until March of 1928 when it was concluded that the two-story, eight-room, cube-shaped symmetrical adobe failed to satisfy their needs functionally or aesthetically and they would have to remodel.
For the next five years, the Fechin family labored to make the home theirs. Nicolai planned, and the multi-lingual Alexandra communicated directions to masons from the Taos Pueblo, one of the town's "well-known carpenters and a metalsmith." Nicolai worked day and night. The arrival of electrical and water systems in Taos in the fall of 1928, and a modern sewage system that arrived in 1930, made it possible for Nicolai to carve and build at night while he painted during the day. The Fechins' workmen removed all interior, non-load bearing walls and reconfigured the space. They doubled the size of the front porch and added a series of rooms that projected from what was once the central cube.
The final result was an asymmetrical adobe Pueblo and Mission Revival house, with twenty-four-inch walls. The Fechins created a wonderful home and a masterpiece of Southwest architecture that celebrated a marriage of the arts: painting, sculpture, drawing, and metalwork. The spaces within the home were sympathetic to Nicolai's art collections as well as his carvings of sculpture, furniture, and architectural ornament.
Despite the massiveness of the walls, Fechin carefully planned window openings. Their locations and shapes were important to accommodate the home's scenic surroundings, including the Sangre de Cristo Mountains under a high sky. He introduced intense light, which bathed textured "terra bayeta" walls and richly carved wood, into the interior through lancet and arched bay windows of rolled and beveled glass.
Working in his father's workshop as a youth provided training for Nicolai as a carver. He absorbed a variety of influences from his Russian heritage and also from his encounters with Native American and Hispanic cultures. Armed with mallet and chisel, he began carving columns, stair rails, vigas, doors, and furniture. With the local metal smith, he fashioned light fixtures, door pulls, and hinges. By 1933, Nicolai and Alexandra, with their workmen, had created one of the most exciting homes in Taos. Eya stated, "A Russian house evolved out of New Mexico mud."
Unfortunately, the family's joy was short-lived. The couple experienced marital problems, and Nicolai, with his daughter, left their home in Taos. Alexandra stayed in the house and assumed the responsibility of maintaining the property until her death in 1983. Nicolai and Eya returned to New York before settling in California, where he died in 1955. After Eya returned to New Mexico, she accepted responsibility of caring for the house. In 1979, the Fechin House was placed on the National Registry of Historic American Homes. Eya also opened the house to the public as a museum. Living in the studio, she created the Fechin Institute and maintained active exhibition and education programs until her death in November 2002.
The Board of the Taos Art Museum at Fechin House is responsible for the exhibition, interpretation, and care of a collection of approximately 600 paintings, drawings, and prints and other artifacts of the Taos founders and those who followed. To accommodate these collections and programs, the Board acquired the Fechin property and immediately began to renovate the house and studio and landscape the grounds. They provided the house with much-needed repair, installed security and track lighting systems, treated the windows to eliminate harmful ultra-violet rays, and refinished the interior walls and the hardwood floors. On the exterior, the white adobe surface was restored.
The Taos Art Museum at Fechin house opened officially in July of 2003, and welcomed the public with a reception in September, celebrating a new home in Taos for the art of Taos, which has been collected as far afield as Corning, New York; Orange, Texas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Los Angeles, California. The Museum honors families who were major patrons: Gerson Gusdorf and Melvin Weimer, Duane Van Vechten and Edwin Lineberry, Eya Fechin, Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark, and William J. Klauer, among others. The museum also recognizes other individuals and institutions who supported artists, including museums, the federal government, the Santa Fe Railway, the media and, of course, other artists.
Virtually all full and associate members of the Taos Society of Artists are represented in the Museum’s collection. Bert Geer Phillips was the first of the group to take up year-round residency in Taos in 1898. He opened doors by establishing close relationships between the Native Americans and artists who joined him in succeeding years. He is represented by a vividly colored portrait, Warbonnet Shadows.
Cincinnatian Joseph Henry Sharp, the 'ethnographer' of the Taos artists, stated: "If I don't paint them [the Native American] no one ever will." In this effort, he painted more than 10,000 canvases, many of which are three-quarter portraits such as Montana Blackfoot Indian.
Eanger Irving Couse was nearly as prolific as Sharp. In 1920 he stated, "My interest has always been the domestic side of the Indian rather than the usual conception of the Indian always on the warpath." He was the first to achieve a national reputation through his success in the National Academy of Design's juried exhibitions. He also created twenty-three images, similar to Fireside Indian, that were reproduced on the Santa Fe Railway's annual calendars. He popularized a kneeling Native American in interior settings, illuminated by man-made fire. These paintings are beautiful examples of how three artists with strong academic backgrounds produced striking and sometimes romanticized canvases of Native Americans.
After Ernest Blumenschein's initial visit to Taos in 1898, he and his wife traveled to Europe and returned to Taos seasonally until the late 19010s. His European training as well as his mature work in Taos is represented in the collection, notably Taos Landscape. In the 1920s, critics referred to Blumenschein as a decorative painter, a reference to his bold form of modernism. In addition to painting, he was also deeply involved as a violinist. In his Indian ceremonials and landscapes, the viewer is made conscious of his interest in strong colors, bold forms, and poetic rhythms.
With a background in commercial illustration, the St. Louis-born Oscar E. Berninghaus, an acute observer of life in and around Taos, painted Watching the Ballgame. Berninghaus claimed that he was "infected with the Taos germ" and was "fascinated by the people, the Indians and Mexicans, the adobe architecture, the sagebrush, the mountains, they all inspired me as a subject matter." Baseball was a favorite community pastime for Native Americans, Hispanics, and Caucasians alike. In fact, when fellow artist Blumenschein wasn't painting, trout fishing, or playing the violin, he played on the Taos team until he was fifty. Watching the Ballgame, like so many of Berninghaus's canvases, is a wonderful example of contemporary life in northern New Mexico.
Two paintings by another highly respected illustrator, William Herbert "Buck" Dunton, the "cowboy" painter of Taos, are among the highlights of the collection. Dunton's Portrait of John Reyna depicts the seated Native American in a three-quarter view, dressed in ceremonial costume. He is highlighted by a handsome bonnet and all the trappings of a proud chieftain. The oil sketch for McMullin, Guide (in the Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas) is one of a half-dozen studies that Dunton did for his monumental canvas of the hunter and his hounds. Few artists put greater effort into a canvas. The oil sketch is remarkable for its bold, spontaneous brushwork, freshness, and authenticity.
The German-born Walter Ufer excelled when painting small canvases. Despite their size, he did not consider Taos Indian (In a Peafield) or Kit Carson House to be preliminaries for larger compositions. Ufer wrote, "I do not make any small sketches of my models first but put my full vitality and enthusiasm into the one and original painting." In fact, Taos Indian (In a Peafield), depicting his favorite model and friend, Jim Mirabal, is meticulous in its detail. Rather than romanticizing him, Ufer painted Jim as he found him. By comparison Kit Carson House is a loosely painted, impressionistic vignette of the street Ufer lived on.
In the 1930s, Taos was devastated by the Great Depression. It wasn't long before the artists discovered that their patrons, if they had liquid assets, were seldom spending on art. One of the most impoverished artists in Taos was the Indiana-born Victor Higgins. Yet, in 1932, despite his economic woes, Higgins painted two of his most important canvases: Winter Funeral (at the Harwood Museum of Art) and Indian Nude. While Winter Funeral was applauded by the New York press, Indian Nude earned the praises of Chicago Herald Examiner critic Inez Cunningham. When Higgins exhibited it in the Chester H. Johnson Galleries in Chicago and Grand Central Galleries in New York, she predicted "a Phoenix Higgins arising out of the ashes of his own past to, one dares not yet say, what heights of intellectual and emotional fire. He is one of those fortunate few who flower in maturity."
Like Ufer and Higgins, Chicagoan E. Martin Henning's first trip to Taos was sponsored by the former Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison II and his syndicate. In 1917, Harrison wrote to Ufer's principle patron, William Klauer, that it was time to get the "skindicate" together to send Hennings to Taos. By 1917, paintings by Ufer and Higgins were too expensive for Harrison and his syndicate. However, they could afford Henning's canvases at $100 or less. Henning’s paintings Thinning Aspen and The Cottonwoods celebrate the harmonious relationship of mankind and Mother Nature physically and spiritually. The artist is best known for his paintings of Native Americans on horseback, moving through groves of aspen or cottonwoods or fields of pinon and chamisa. In Hennings's paintings, the Native American lives and flourishes with Mother Nature and her earth that supports animal life, vegetative growth, and man's very existence.
Taos is a country of wonderful light, high skies, and dramatic color contrasts. The Cottonwoods pictures seasonal changes in foliation that challenged Hennings with a wealth of pictorial opportunities. He chose fall months when the leafless cottonwoods created a network of fan-shape branches. Bathed in the brilliant New Mexico sunshine, the branches turn a silvery-tan and create wonderful shapes against piercing blue skies.
The Taos Art Museum completes its 'set' of paintings by Taos Society Artists members with examples by Julius Rolshoven, Catharine Carter Critcher, and Kenneth Adams. Of the associate members of the Taos Society of Artists, there are paintings, drawings, and prints by Robert Henri, Randall Davey, Albert Groll, B.J. O. Nordfeldt, Gustave Baumann, and Birger Sandzen.
During the 1920s and 1930s, there was an influx of artists who showed tendencies toward modernism. Andrew Dasburg arrived in Taos in 1918 and was a key proponent of Modernism. Influenced by the works of Paul Cezanne, he brought the cubist aesthetic to Taos. Kenneth Adams, Ward Lockwood, Barbara Latham, and Howard Cook were some of the artists influenced by Dasburg. They came to Taos and spent their careers there. Lockwood, Latham, and Cook eventually settled in Dasburg's neighborhood on the north Talpa ridge. All of the artists could be seen painting the Picuris Mountains to the south, patterns created by strip farming, and adobe houses seemingly growing out of the terra firma. They all lead up to Dasburg's Mount San Victoire, rising to a high sky punctuated by blocklike clouds.
The real heroes of the Taos Art Museum are Nicolai Fechin, his wife, Alexandra, and daughter Eya. With all of his work on the house, Fechin still found time to work at the easel and continue to build on his reputation as a portrait painter. While living in New York, and prior to his arrival in New York City, Fechin painted portraits of such notables as Lillian Gish and Duane Van Vechten (who followed the Fechins to Taos and became one of the community's most important patrons). In Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan and artist Eleanora Kissel sat for him. But his most important models were Eya and Alexandra. He painted Eya until, in his opinion, she was no longer "cute." He painted faces and hands in the manner of the German Renaissance artist Hans Holbein and costume and setting in an Impressionistic style. Today, the walls of his renovated home are a perfect setting for his paintings, hand carved furniture, and architectural ornamentation. Nicolai Fechin, with a breadth of experiences, accomplished what few others have: his work is celebrated in New Mexico's finest museum, The Taos Art Museum at Fechin House.