Skip to main content

Spring 2006

Mowers' Tree logo

International Cather Seminar at the University of Nebraska

Bakst's Cather

During the afternoon of June 23, the sixth day of the International Seminar, a slide presentation on the Russian avantgarde painter Leon Nikolaevich Bakst and his oeuvre was given by Evelyn Haller of Doane College followed by a talk on the history of a portrait of Cather painted by Bakst given by Vicki Martin of UNL.

Participants in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's portion of the International Cather Seminar 2005 were able to see and judge for themselves the now infamous portrait of Willa Cather, painted by Léon Nikolaevich Bakst in 1923. The painting had not been exhibited since its creation. It has been in the Omaha Public Library for over eighty years after the unveiling and presentation to the Library by the Omaha Society of Fine Arts in December 1923. During the week of the Seminar, Bakst's Cather portrait was exhibited in the Archives and Special Collections of UNL, along with displays of correspondence to and from Cather, typescripts of her novels, photographs, and other archival materials from the various Cather holdings in the Archives and Special Collections.

The controversy surrounding Cather, Bakst, the painting, and an Omaha newspaper columnist, Margaret Badollet Shotwell, was documented in letters and newspaper stories from 1922 through 1924, and a story of the controversy can be found in the Fall/Winter 2003 Mowers' Tree). Since then, however, new material from 1923 (the year the portrait was painted) has been presented to the Archives and Special Collections of UNL. Included are letters from Cather and some of her friends to her sister Elsie. They reveal that Cather started the project with a great deal of enthusiasm for the painter and the project, as is evidenced in her August 11, 1923, letter to Elsie. She begins the letter by giving Elsie a lesson in the pronunciation of Bakst's name, which she says is pronounced just like the past tense of the English word "to box" or "boxed" or, if pronounced with the mid-western vowel sound, as if it rhymed with "waxed." She indicates that she wants her father and mother and her nieces to be able to pronounce Bakst's name since it will be associated with her name while she sits for him.

Cather writes that she is enjoying sitting for Bakst and says it is like being in church. She refers to Bakst as one of the simple people she has always loved, like Annie Sadilek and Joe Pavelka, who were friends when she was a child. She also says that Bakst begins each sitting with the telling of Russian fairy tales. Cather continues and writes that the portrait depicts her head and shoulders and Bakst did not want her to dress up. She says that she was able to wear a green georgette (originally a trademark name, but the term later came to mean a sheer, strong silk or silk like fabric with a dull creped surface) with some gold in it which she already owned. We can see however, that the completed portrait differs from Bakst's original plan.

Until recently all available opinions of Cather's family and friends and Cather herself indicate a negative view of the portrait. Edith Lewis, in Willa Cather Living says "the portrait was a complete failure . . . stiff, dark, heavy, lifeless--everything that Willa Cather was not, and indeed, everything that Bakst was not" (132). And Carrie Miner Sherwood, in a 1969 interview with Tom Allan of the Omaha World Herald, recorded her negative reaction: "She once asked me how I liked the picture," Carrie said. "I told her I liked the rubber tree in the background. She replied 'All right you keep the rubber plant and I'll get another picture.' Of course she didn't" (n. pag.).

However, a letter from Cather's friend Isabelle McClung Hambourg to Cather's sister Elsie, which has recently been added to the University Archives/Special Collections in the James R. and Susan J. Rosowski Cather Collection (see following article), provides a different view of the portrait. Hambourg writes Elsie to explain that Cather has taken a few weeks away from her sittings with Bakst to Aix-les-Baines for some much-needed rest. In the first paragraph of that letter, Hambourg provides a glowing description of the portrait:

I've just come home after lunching in Paris with Willa-as you know she is there to be nearer Mr. Bakst studio for the portrait-which is coming on beautifully-the modelling of the head, and the colour of her skin especially lovely-then it is so graceful and simple-not at all one of the foolish dressed up kind.

Those who have seen the painting know that Cather is wearing a beautiful but simple champagne-colored silk dress and her skin is, as Hambourg describes, "especailly lovely."

Image of Leon Bakst's portrait of Willa Cather

Banks portrays his subject holding a book—a compositional device used for centuries by artists to indicate a scholar or a person of letters. Another device he uses is the emphasis on Cather's hand—the instrument of creativity for a writer—by using energetic, almost frenetic brushstrokes. These heavy brushstrokes contrast with the silky, flowing treatment of paint throughout the rest of the figure. A slight uneasiness is also set up in Cather's resful yet pensive pose. She holds her finger to mark her place in the book and looks up in thought. At the time Bakst painted Cather's portrait, she had just won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours. Also, she had recently recovered from the flu, appendicitis, and neuritis, had committed to religion and joined the Episcopal Church, was sent to Aix-les-Bains to recover from stress (following doctor's orders), was concerned about her aging parents, and thought that the world was "breaking in two." Bakst captures, in the expression of Cather's face and the subtle tension throughout the painting, the emotional heaviness and pressure that must have been part of her life in 1923.

Arrangements for the portrait's loan were made by the Cather Project and the Director of the Omaha Public Libraries, Rivkah Sass. However, before the painting could travel it needed to be appraised, insured, packed in a custom-made wooden case built by Jim Rosowski, and transported 60 miles to UNL's Special Collections. After the presentations of Haller and Martin, seminar participants agreed with Hambourg about the portrait—a show of hands indicating an almost unanimous positive opinion of the portrait.

Works Cited

Allan, Tom. "Memories of Cather Abound for Centenarian." Omaha World Herald 31 Dec. 1969: n. pag.
Cather, Willa. "Letter to Elsie Cather." James R. and Susan J. Rosowski Cather Collection. University Archives/Special Collections-University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 11 August 1923.
Hambourg, Isabelle McClung. "Letter to Elsie Cather." James R. and Susan J. Rosowski Cather Collection. University Archives/Special Collections-University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 28 August 1923.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1976.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.