Lèon Bakst (1866-1924) and Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955), both born and educated in Russia, produced the two portraits of Willa Cather known to have been painted during her lifetime.
Bakst was already well-known as a scene and costume designer associated with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russe in Paris. He was also a portrait painter. When the Omaha Society of Fine Arts asked Cather to choose a painter for a portrait they wanted to hang in the Omaha Public Library to commemorate her 1923 Pulitzer Prize, she happened to be in Ville d’Avray for a long visit with Isabelle and Jan Hambourg. Ville d’Avray is close to Paris, and the Hambourgs suggested she ask Bakst to do the portrait.
Cather enjoyed Bakst during the approximately twenty sittings it took for him to finish the portrait in his Paris studio, but she was not feeling well at the time and found the process difficult. In fact, she took three weeks off near the end to go to Aix-les-Bains for a restorative break. She already thought the “likeness” of her face “unusual” when she left for Aix-les-Bains and worried that people in Nebraska would not like Bakst’s portrait when it was finished (August 27,  letter to Duncan Vinsonhaler, Selected Letters of Willa Cather, University of Nebraska Press, 2013, p. 344.). And the truth is, neither Cather nor the good people of Nebraska were pleased by the finished product.
In Death Comes: A Willa Cather and Edith Lewis Mystery, Edith remembers:
Willa loved posing in costume. She always had. It was like acting, and Willa loved the theater. Loved everything theatrical. Edith guessed that’s why Willa had been drawn to Leon Bakst, the Russian painter and set designer for the Ballets Russes, for her first portrait. The Omaha Society of Fine Arts had insisted on a portrait after Willa won the Pulitzer Prize. They wanted to celebrate her success by hanging her portrait in the Omaha Public Library. They told Willa to pick the artist. Willa was visiting Isabelle and Jan Hambourg in Paris at the time, and Isabelle suggested Bakst.
When she returned to New York, Willa described to Edith the endless days she spent sitting for Bakst in his Paris studio. How his studio overflowed with rich colors and plush textures and how delightful he had been. But the final portrait proved to be a disaster. Despite all Bakst’s efforts and the modern cut of her dress, her seated body was out of proportion, her hand holding a book too large, and her eyes, eyes that stared disconcertingly forward, followed a viewer from every direction. And they were opaque, vacant, almost as empty of expression as the eyes of the woman whose body they found last summer. Edith shook her mind loose from that vision and returned to the image Bakst had painted of Willa. His Willa appeared sad, listless, and somehow stiff, as if she were a tired pear a little off-center in a still life.
How can a dress so stylish be made to look like such a limp sack, Willa had protested. She was embarrassed and the women of the art society disappointed, but they hung the portrait in the Omaha library and paid Bakst’s bill. The whole experience made Willa so uncomfortable Edith couldn’t resist teasing that Bakst made her look like one of the club ladies who ordered the portrait. That’s not funny, Willa said, and Edith promised never to mention the portrait again.
In contrast, both Willa and Edith loved the sketch and portrait Nicolai Fechin did of Willa sometime around 1926. First the sketch, then the portrait. It is unclear exactly when or where Fechin actually did them. Cather’s niece, Helen Cather Southwick, who donated the portrait to the University of Nebraska’s Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, suggested date was 1923 or 1924, but that is the timeframe for the Bakst portrait. Fechin emigrated to New York City in 1923, but he was in Taos when Cather was there, and he built his own house and studio in Taos in 1927, the year he painted a portrait of Mabel Dodge Luhan.
Fechin’s sketch of Cather is typical of the charcoal sketches he made of his subjects before he painted their full portraits.
In Death Comes, Willa and Edith react to the finished sketch with delight and anticipate that Fechin will paint the actual portrait in his studio once they all return to New York City.
“That’s amazing, Nicolai!”
Willa’s raised eyebrows added force to her exclamation. Edith watched as Willa adjusted the sleeves on her peasant blouse and slipped off the stool Nicolai had placed so that she would be flooded with sunlight in his makeshift studio. Willa was so excited she hugged Edith. “I’m glad you came back in time to see this. It’s a triumph!” Ignoring Nicolai’s reticence, she hugged him, too.
Nicolai pulled away saying, “No, no. It’s you! You are the triumph! Look,” he extended his arm toward the charcoal sketch on his easel, “this is you. This is a woman who has lived fully and well. This is a writer thinking, a serious writer in command of her art, a powerful artist.” Nicolai paused, stepped back, and repeated, “This is you.”
Edith loved the sketch. Nicolai was right. He had caught Willa the artist. Not the one who would giggle and dangle her toes in a mountain stream, but the one who thought deeply, researched thoroughly, and honed her craft until it had become hers to use as she chose. This Willa, Nicolai’s Willa, brimmed with life. And she was powerful, almost overwhelmingly so. Palpably so. Edith stepped forward for a closer examination. Nicolai had included only Willa’s head and the upper portion of her body, but her energy flowed from the sketch as if the paper were charged with electricity.
“The peasant blouse is perfect,” Edith continued. “That flowing, deep-throated collar,” she pointed to the material near Willa’s throat. “Lovely. Just lovely.”
Nicolai had provided the peasant blouse. Genius, Edith thought.
But now Willa was ecstatic. No question about it, Fechin had caught her essence. “Such a sense of life. Of emotion. And it’s me,” she exclaimed. “But how serious I look, how stern, almost imperious. Do I really look like that?”
“Often,” Edith smiled.
“You do to me,” Nicolai nodded. “It is a magnificent expression, no?”
“I suppose,” Willa paused to examine the sketch again. “And you finished this in just one afternoon.”
“Yes,” Nicolai laughed. “But you will sit for me more, yes? In New York? In my studio? It is a real studio. All my things are there. Bright, bold colors. And in the midst of those colors, I will frame your face in the white of the peasant blouse. Light against dark. A few sittings and you will be vibrant. You like?”
“Yes,” Edith responded quickly.
“Oh, yes,” Willa agreed.
And finally, the finished portrait, less colorful than the portrait of Mabel Dodge Luhan, but Willa Cather looks no less magisterial.
And there is no doubt that Cather and Lewis loved this portrait, which they kept hanging in their New York apartment’s living room until Edith Lewis’s death, which occurred twenty-five years after Willa Cather’s.