Reflecting on the development of her art collection, Rebecca Salsbury James recalled, "After I came to Taos in 1932, we acquired another small number of paintings...either by purchase or as gifts from the artists who were our friends--Tom Benrimo, Oscar Berninghaus, Nicolai Fechin and Cady Wells. These men, too, became outstanding artists and today hold an important place in the history of American Art." (as quoted in The Collection of William and Rebecca James, exhibition catalogue, Albuquerque, New Mexico, circa 1960s, p. 1) Fechin and James were particularly good friends, and their close understanding of each other's unique personality is reflected in this arresting portrait.
Fechin found "Beck" James to be a "strikingly beautiful woman with prematurely white hair. I can still see her walking around with Georgia O'Keeffe, both starkly dressed, hair pulled back tightly, one head white, the other dark, like sisters in a stylized bas-relief." (as quoted in S. Campbell, In the Shadow of the Sun: The Life and Art of Rebecca Salsbury James, Ph.D. dissertation, The University of New Mexico, 2002, p. 233) On the other hand, James described Fechin as "painfully shy...He was sinewy, gaunt, and thin--like a block of wood but he was a violent person, not a pacifist. He belonged here--in this primitive, wild, hostile, extra-ordinary country." (M.N. Balcomb, Nicolai Fechin, Flagstaff, Arizona, 1975, p. 106)
Despite his general introversion, Fechin was not shy with James, and the two quarreled over the composition of the present portrait. "By then a chain smoker, she wanted him to paint her with a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth. He flatly refused.” (In the Shadow of the Sun, p. 268) Regardless, James loved the final product, especially as she aged and became more self-conscious. "She left the house only infrequently and seldom allowed friends to visit her. During the rare times that she did, she would sit behind a card table under her...Fechin portrait and ask her guest to look at it rather than her, pointing to it and saying, ‘There is the real me.” (In the Shadow of the Sun, p. 299)