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Return to Interviews Table of Contents Source File: cat.bohlke.i.17.xml

from Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters

Selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke

Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986

1923: RED CL0UD

One of the activities occupying Cather during her stay in France was sitting for a portrait. A group of citizens in Omaha had conducted a fund-raising campaign in order to honor the Nebraska writer and wanted to commission a portrait to hang in the Omaha Public Library. The request for the portrait came to her at almost the same time as she received the news of winning the Pulitzer. She chose Léon Bakst, a painter best known for his set designs. The following article explains how that choice took place. Although not an actual interview, the information is pertinent. Or, as the article itself states, "this information has come indirectly, but it is doubtless authentic."

The painting was never exactly popular, and its merit has often been debated. Carrie Miner Sherwood was said to have admired the plant in the background.


Much interest is shown, not only in Nebraska, but also in the east, in the portrait of Miss Willa Cather, which is being painted by Bakst, the famous Russian artist. The picture is eventually to be placed in the Omaha public library, but eastern friends have requested that it be exhibited there before being permanently located in Omaha. Before long, all Red Cloud people who visit Omaha will expect to call at the library and see the portrait before returning home, and many from other parts of the state will make similar pilgrimages.

An interesting account of how Bakst came to paint the portrait was told me by a friend of Miss Cather. It seems that after the Omaha friends had arranged to have the likeness painted, but had not secured an artist, Miss Cather met Bakst at a social affair, and in course of conversation mentioned the plans of her Omaha friends. Bakst suggested that he might do the work. Miss Cather replied that to engage so celebrated an artist would probably require a higher price than her friends would desire to pay. Bakst replied that he would do the work for half the usual fee. It seems that he was then doing entirely different work, and desired to paint one portrait by way of change, also that he was moved by Miss Cather's notable achievements in the world of letters.

Miss Cather had expected to find the sittings rather tedious, but she writes that they are proving quite enjoyable. The artist entertains her as he works by telling Russian folktales, which not only interests her, but doubtless furnishes material which will later be incorporated into her stories. Bakst speaks very excellent French, and Miss Cather is using this opportunity to perfect her present very good knowledge of that language. He requests that she always address him in English in order that he may learn more of that tongue.

It is also stated that Miss Cather is becoming a little homesick for the prairies of her home state, and will be back with her old friends once more soon. All of this information has come indirectly, but it is doubtless authentic, and will be interesting to Argus readers.

Ten copies of Miss Cather's new book, The Lost Lady,* were placed on sale at the Cotting store yesterday, and by night several were gone and one or two more were engaged. Mr. Cotting did not lay in a large supply, thinking that perhaps the demand would not be so great on account of the story having been published in the Century. He has ordered additional copies, however, and plans to supply all customers.

*As appears in text, should be A Lost Lady.

Webster County Argus, 13 September 1923, p. 2, col. 3.