Romola – Praised for Unusual Visual Splendor

Lillian Gish - Romola

There were endorsements from museum directors dithyrambic over the accuracy of historical detail, and no less an artistic luminary than painter Pierre Bonnard asserted, “It will awaken longings for the glorious past and enthuse all souls that follow ideals.” The concept central to publicity for Romola was Lillian Gish, the incarnation of the Renaissance woman. Nicolai Fechin’s portrait of her as the character was eventually bought by the Art Institute of Chicago; sculptor Gleb Derujinsky’s bust of her Romola is now in the collection of Washington’s National Portrait Gallery. French press materials, for instance, accentuated the Renaissance connection, even featuring side-by-side photographs of the Mona Lisa and a rather peculiar version of the portrait with Lillian’s face superimposed on it. The writer was quick to advise viewers that since Lillian was “as pure as she was good,” her eyes harbored none of the “devil” hidden in the subject of da Vinci’s painting.

Testimonials to her beauty were probably insufficient solace to Lillian, who, not especially enthusiastic about Romola at the outset, was decidedly unsatisfied with the finished product. “I never thought the drama matched the splendor of its fifteenth-century backgrounds.” (Charles Affron)

Romola - Nicolai Fechin 1925 Painting Oil on canvas tacked over board, 125.1 x 114.9 cm. Private collection as of 2006.
Romola – Nicolai Fechin 1925 – Painting Oil on canvas tacked over board, 125.1 x 114.9 cm. Private collection as of 2006.

Although Romola did well, I never thought the drama matched the splendor of its fifteenth-century backgrounds. Douglas Fairbanks maintained that it was the most beautiful picture ever made, but I found it too slow-paced. Giavonni Poggi, then director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, said of it: “In the film Romola the costumes, the principals and the ensembles seem to have been studied with the greatest possible care. Bravo for the beautiful work of Inspiration Pictures.” And Firmin Gemier, director of the Odeon National Theater, Paris, wrote: “I must tell you how marvelous I think Romola is. Your reconstruction of the golden age of Florence gave me one of the greatest surprises of my life. It is a glorious moment from an epoch in which all true artists, all people of culture, all those who have loved and thought passionately, would like to have lived.”

lillian-gish-gleb-derujinsky-sculpture
Lillian Gish and Gleb Derujinsky’s sculpture – Romola

During that time, two sculptors, Dimitri Dirujinski and Boris Lorski, modeled busts of me. Nicolai Fechin did a portrait of me as Romola that was bought by the Chicago Art Institute. When I was in that city playing in Life With Father, it was hanging in the Goodman Theater. (Lillian Gish)

Nicolai Fechin and Alexandra Fechin with actress Lillian Gish and Erwin S. Barrie, director
Nicolai Fechin and Alexandra Fechin with actress Lillian Gish and Erwin S. Barrie, director

Nicolai Fechin (1881 – 1955) also known as “The Tartar Painter”, was highly influential student of Russian master Ilya Repin. Fechin, along with John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, and Anders Zorn are the perhaps the most frequently cited influences on contemporary impressionists. But it is Fechin’s technique and approach that made his paintings stand out. Masterful with color and palette knife, Fechin used whatever he could, including saliva and his thumb, to achieve the effects he was seeking. Fechin would start with an abstract and bring it back to realism in select areas such as the face and hands, but his compositions, especially anything other than the center of interest, were generally abstract.Began paintings on plain, double weave Belgian linen, which was often attached to stretchers which he had made. He generally prepared his own canvases and seldom made preliminary sketches.His ground varied, not only from painting to painting, but upon a single canvas. In some areas he might use rabbit skin glue; in others, cottage cheese. The absorbency differences in the various sections of ground resulted in areas of high gloss and areas of matte finish in his completed painting. This was the effect he sought, and he therefore did not varnish his paintings.

Fechin painted Lillian Gish as Romola in 1925 (oil on canvas tacked over board) 49¼ x 45¼ in. (125.1 x 114.9 cm.). Estimate $150.000, portrait was finally sold for $464.000 and is part of a private collection since 2006.

Lillian Gish admiring Romola portrait by Nicolai Fechin 1930 - French Press
Lillian Gish admiring Romola portrait by Nicolai Fechin cca 1925 (Oil on canvas painting) – French Press HiRes

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