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#0714: Willa Cather to Duncan M. Vinsonhaler, [January 13, 1924]

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⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩ Dear Judge Vinsonhaler1:

I enclose a telegram I received this morning and a copy3 of my reply. I have been meaning to write you more fully about this matter, but I wanted to wait until after Bakst4's visit5 to Omaha6, as that would give him a chance to explain his picture7 in his own way.

Of course I am not satisfied with the picture as a portrait of myself; but I think one is not likely to be a good judge in the matter of one's own likeness. If I didn't like it, why did I accept it?

Before I accepted it I took two American painters8 to the studio when Bakst was not there, and they discussed it at length. They assured me that it was a conscientious piece of work--too much so, that he had tried until the result was labored and stiff. They thought all the accessories, even the dress, were beautifully painted, as only a distinguished painter could paint them, but that the face and hands were too labored. They agreed with me that one could not refuse to accept an honest piece of work, even if the likeness was unsatisfactory. When we employ an eminent physician and the patient dies, we pay him, just the same. When we employ an eminent painter, it is just the same. I know several people who have had to take much worse portraits than this one from Sargent9, at much higher prices. We know great portrait painters by their successes; we do not take into account the many pictures that almost arrived or utterly failed. A portrait is always a gamble, as we agreed in the beginning. I think this time our luck was bad, but I can at least comfort myself by believing that the result is a little harder on me than on any one of my friends in Omaha who did me the honor to want a painting of me. Surely they won't accuse me of having accepted the picture out of personal vanity!

I gave Bakst sixteen sittings, and several long afternoons in the country. The sittings were usually three hours long. I never saw anybody work harder, and I never worked harder myself. If he failed to make a good likeness, it was not because he was careless. If I had felt that he slighted the commission in any way, I would certainly have refused to take it, but under the circumstances, I did not feel that I could do so.


Now, on the other hand, had I been Bakst, I would have refused to let a commission go out that fell so far short of being a satisfying likeness. That he might have done, but he did not. I have resolved never again to have anything to do with a work of art which I cannot destroy if it does not suit me. I have a large and commodious grate in my apartment10 for that purpose. My friends in Omaha ought not to feel about this matter as they might feel if I had painted the picture, or if I had just published a book that had the faults of this likeness. I set out to do a portrait11 in "A Lost Lady"12 and I had, I think, better luck than Bakst,though I am sure I didn't work much harder. But often an artist does not know when he has failed to get a likeness13.

I hope that some time in the near future I can get the time to sit to another painter14 and get a picture for which you will give me the Bakst picture in exchange. Or if it would seem better,p[illegible]y, I will so gladly send a check for the price of the picture and cease to worry about it.

May I tell you in confidence, Judge Vinsonhaler, that this unhappy painting has cost me more downright worry and anxiety and distress than any book I ever wrote? I never spent sleepless nights over any work of my own as I did over this. It wasn't poor enough to refuse, it wasn't a good likeness and therefore would disappoint. My only hope was that I was really worse looking than I had hitherto thought, and that perhaps it looked like me after all.

Now I want you to show this letter to such interested persons as you may see fit; to such as have bowels of compassion and some imagination, and who know how difficult it sometimes is to divine the right line of conduct. Your people meant so well, and I meant so well,and I insist that Bakst meant so well.! Mercy, how hard he and I did work, those grilling-hot summer days! Beg all your committee to sit for portraits, quickly, and then they will judge me mercifully!

Mournfully but faithfully yours Willa Cather
Mr. Duncan M. Vinsonhaler1 First National Bank Building Omaha6 Nebraska. NEW YORK,N.Y.STAT2 Jan 17 1924 330 PM