Portraits of Willa Cather by Lèon Bakst and Nicolai Fechin

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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, [1923] 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.

Portrait of Willa Cather by Lèon Bakst (1866-1924)

Courtesy Omaha Public Library, Omaha, Nebraska.

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