Arthur and Helen Torr Dove’s illustrated diary (Image courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

From Vincent Van Gogh to Joseph Cornell, writing has always been a crucial part of the artist’s life. For some, it helps formulate a better conceptual understanding of works created through more mysterious, intuitive processes. For others, it’s a way to ruminate over source material — the highs and lows that fuel creative drive.

That may be why artists throughout history have been vigilant keepers of the diary, now the subject of an intriguing exhibition put on by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. A Day in the Life: Artists’ Diaries from the Archives of American Art features 35 diaries kept by a wide range of artists between 1865 and 2001.

Some of the diaries on view contain hard-earned wisdom concerning color, shape, form and line, as well as details about what paints, brushes, and canvases the artists used. In his 1911–12 painting diary, Oscar Bluemner reminds himself to “not put on color unless it is done with full feeling” and to “take care to keep pigments and mixture pure on the palette, on the brush, on the canvas.”

Other diaries reflect in their physical form the unique sensibilities of their keepers. A May 17, 1946 entry by Cornell is written on a torn-out magazine advertisement for a lamp. In it, the reclusive artist recalls recent dreams “just as intense in emotion and beauty (and even more prolonged + elaborate than fragments formerly recorded) but harder to get ahold of at any point to record … ” He laments that “many wonderful visions of the night have slipped away … ”

As might be expected, many of the diaries include drawings, whether mock-ups of future works or gestural sketches of people on the street. Throughout 1865, Henry Mosler kept a small, iPhone-sized diary filled with the faces of people he saw during his travels as a Civil War illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. Similarly, the joint diary kept by Helen Torr Dove and Arthur Dove in 1936 is frequently accompanied by curious, abstract images of a circle.

One of F. Luis Mora’s 242 monthly pocket diaries kept from 1899-1922. (Image courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

These diaries are valuable not only for the intimate look they offer into the lives of the artists who kept them, but also for their documentation of important historical moments. One 1865 entry by Philadelphia artist Rubin Peale describes Washington, DC the day after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination:

“This has been truly a day of mourning, the flags all over the city at half mast … the front of the State House is draped with black and so are many houses..”

Today, the internet has opened up new possibilities for the artist’s diary (or “notebook,” if the word “diary” makes you squeamish) through blogging websites, social media feeds, and apps like Evernote. But hopefully, as the pervasiveness of brands like Moleskine seems to suggest, the old-fashioned paper journal will continue to have a place in the artist’s arsenal. A Day in the Life reminds us why it should.

Oscar Bluemner’s painting diary, kept from June 12, 1911 until January 30, 1912. “Graphite and pen were used to write the diary entries while pen and crayon were used to create the sketches. Titled on first page as Bluemner’s “First [Painting] Diary.” Diary entries are in English and German.” (Image and caption courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

Rubin Peales’s account of viewing Abraham Lincoln’s body lying in state in Philadelphia in April, 1865. (Image courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s trip to Paris in 1890 when she was 15. “Whitney documents her boat voyage across the Atlantic and back; sightseeing in London and Paris; lessons in painting and other subjects, horseback riding and social events in Newport.” (Image and caption courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

A May 8, 1939 diary entry by Reuben Tam describing several evenings spent fishing and exploring Hawaiian beaches. (Image courtesy of the Archives of American Art)

“Cornell records impressions of his dreams from the night of May 17, 1946, written in pencil on a page torn from a magazine. The page features an advertisement for a lamp collection sold by Carson Pirie Scott & Co. On verso is another ad, for Kellogg stationery.” (Image courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

William Christopher’s diary recording the Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, from March 13-15, 1965. “Tooker describes in detail his trip to Montgomery, Alabama along with his colleague John Scotford Jr. and partner George Tooker. He details their arrival in Montgomery, the journey from Montgomery to Selma, where they go to a memorial service for the Reverend James Reeb with eulogy by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the march from Selma to Montgomery, where Dr. King speaks again.” (Image and caption courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

Janice Lowry’s collaged entry on September 11, 2001. “Journal includes diary entries that document Lowry’s health, her father’s death, her relationship with her mother, meditations on death and growing old, and her reactions to the terrorist attacks on September 11th. Also notes, to-dos, grocery lists, collages, stamps, watercolor and ink sketches. Pasted in are news clippings, photos of Lowry and husband Jon Gothold, lab results, and other ephemera. This is one of 119 art journals, ranging from circa 1973-2007, in Lowry’s papers.” (Image and caption courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

A Day in the Life: Artists’ Diaries from the Archives of American Art runs at the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Smithsonian’s Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture through Feb. 28, 2015. 

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...