A letter from Joseph Lindon Smith to his parents in May 1891, showing him returning home to New Hampshire from Mexico (all letters from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, and appear in ‘More Than Words’ by Liza Kirwin, published by Princeton Architectural Press)

Before people were dropping GIFs into Gmail, letter writers were adding illustrations for that emotional or contextual punch. More than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Artout this month from Princeton Architectural Press, compiles over 90 letters from artists from the 19th century to 1980s.

Cover of ‘More than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art’

This edition of More than Words (and apologies if the saccharine refrain of the 1990 Extreme ballad of the same name is now in your head) is a paperback version of a book originally released in 2005. Written and selected by Liza Kirwin, curator of manuscripts at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, it’s worth revisiting. While the reason these letters are collected by the Smithsonian is their connection to influential artists, such as Thomas Eakins, Man Ray, Andy Warhol, Winslow Homer, and Dorothea Tanning, the publication is more a tribute to the vanishing handwritten letter.

“Let this book celebrating the fine art of the illustrated letter serve as a reminder that a material treasure is all but disappearing from our culture, and as a call for more thoughtful and inspired communications in the future,” Kirwin writes in an introduction.

The letters are divided into six sections by theme, with love letters, missives from travels, and thank you notes included. Some offer intimate glimpses into the lives of the artists, like Frida Kahlo ending a note to Emmy Lou Packard in October 24, 1940, with three kisses: one for Emmy Lou for taking care of her former husband Diego Rivera after an eye ailment, another for Emmy Lou’s son, and a last for Rivera, whom she would remarry later that year. Others are evocative of the artists’ visual style, even in a mundane way, with Alexander Calder’s boldly colored and angled map to his home, sent to artist Ben Shahn in 1949. Still others play with the possibilities of paper correspondence: Alfred Joseph Freuh in 1913 handily made a letter that folds out into a miniature art gallery for his wife Giuliette to prepare for the “gallery marathon” of Paris.

Transcriptions of the letters are included in the back of the book, each just a few lines from what was most likely a longer communication, something that could have been elaborated upon in the mostly short captions for each letter. However, the letters stand alone as little time capsules of verbal and visual play, reinforcing connections between long distance friends, family, lovers, and colleagues. As a 1958 quote from John Graham affirms on the inside page of More than Words: “Letter writing is probably the most beautiful manifestation in human relations, in fact, it is its finest residue.”

Pages from ‘More than Words’ showing a letter from Miné Okubo to collector Roy Leeper on May 18, 1971 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Pages from ‘More than Words’ showing letters from Walt Kuhn sent to cheer art patron Eloise Spaeth during illness, in 1940 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

A letter from Frida Kahlo to Emmy Lou Packard on October 24, 1940, thanking her for taking care of her former husband Diego Rivera who had suffered an eye ailment. She includes three lipstick marks for Emmy Lou, her son Donald, and Rivera, writing “Kiss Diego for me and tell him I love him more than my own life.” They got remarried later that year.

A letter from Alexander Calder to artist Ben Shahn on February 24, 1949, illustrating a map to his home

A letter from Alfred Joseph Freuh to his wife Giuliette Fanciulli on January 10, 1913, which folds out into an art gallery so she could prepare for the “gallery marathon” of Paris

A letter from Yves Saint-Laurent to Alexander Liberman on June 7, 1970 from Marrakesh

A letter from Man Ray to Julian Edwin Levi on June 26, 1929 in Paris

A letter from Andy Warhol to Harper’s editor Russell Lynes in 1949. “My life couldn’t fill a penny postcard,” the 21-year-old writes.

A letter from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to friend Hedda Sterne in 1943, announcing the completion of his book ‘The Little Prince’

Letter from Eero Saarinen to his second wife Aline Bernstein in 1953, illustrating his plan for the Michigan Music School that would be finished in 1964

Letter from Gaston Longchamp to “Mr. & Mrs. Goldberg” in 1956. “This election is going to make a lot of people eat something they may not like: namely the old black crow.”

Letter from Moses Soyer to his son David Soyer in 1940, including a puzzle where he draws their cat Jester hidden under the dog

Paul Branson’s letter to his sweetheart actress Grace Bond, showing him looking at her photograph in 1905. “In my minds [sic] eye I can see Hollis Street Theater & the stage door so plainly. Oh! I wish I were there with you.”

More than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art by Liza Kirwin is published by Princeton Architectural Press and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

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