See the Smithsonian Archive’s Collection of Artists’ Handwritten Letters

Lenore Tawney, postcard to Maryette Charlton (1970) (All images courtesy of Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, from Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art by Mary Savig, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2016)

Whatever skeptics may say about the pseudoscience of graphology (handwriting analysis), it’s hard to deny that handwriting expresses feeling and style — especially, in many cases, when it’s the handwriting of an artist. Georgia O’Keeffe’s bold, squiggly lines and lack of punctuation ignored conventions of grammar and penmanship. Jackson Pollock’s sketchy scribble reflected both his spontaneous splatter paintings and his erratic early schooling. Philip Guston painted his letterforms, mirroring the loose lines of his abstractions, often shifting between words and doodles in his written correspondence.  

The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art house hundreds of thousands of handwritten letters, dating from the 18th century to the present day. A good number of these letters were penned by artists. Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (Princeton Architectural Press), a new book edited by Mary Savig, compiles 56 such missives, showcasing how writing a letter can be an artistic act. It’s also a reminder of what’s lost in the age of email, since such elaborately illustrated letters are something of an endangered species. “Handwritten letters are performances on paper,” Savig writes in the book. Far more than its systematized counterpart, typography, handwriting can be wildly expressive of emotion, time, and place. If you approach these letters not just as sentimental apocrypha, but also with the eye of an aspiring forensic document examiner, they yield insights into lives and work of artistic legends — among them, Mary Cassatt, Robert Motherwell, Isamu Noguchi, John Singer Sargent, Marcel Duchamp, Berenice Abbott, Corita Kent, and Cy Twombly. Here, a selection of letters from Pen to Paper.

Howard Finster, Letter to Barbara Shissler, 1981

The Reverend Howard Finster — a Baptist preacher, banjo player, and outsider artist from Georgia — is best known for his sprawling sculpture-filled Paradise Garden and his album cover designs for R.E.M. and Talking Heads. In this 1981 letter to curator Barbara Shissler, Finster expresses mad excitement about his upcoming trip to Washington D.C. for the opening of More than Land or Sky: Art from Appalachia.

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Howard Finster, Letter to Barbara Shissler (1981)

In block letters, Finster scrawled one long, run-on sentence: “I AM EXCITED TO BE COMING TO WASHINGTON WHERE THESE GREAT MEN ONCE HAD OUR FUTURE RESPONSIBILITY UPON THEM I FEEL SO UNWORTHY TO LIVE IN A WORLD OF LUXERY [sic] AND THESE GREAT MEN PAVED OUR WAY,” he yells on the page. The text weaves around goofy pencil portraits of “these great men” (dead American presidents, plus, inexplicably, William Shakespeare). A gremlin-like sketch of Shissler, too, appears at the bottom of the page. “His handwriting, most often in block capitals, was like his preaching — purposeful, emphatic, and an integral part of his art, his ‘sermons in paint,’” writes Liza Kirwin, Deputy Director of Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, in the book. “Finster, who rarely paused in life or in conversation, had little use for punctuation.”

Eero Saarinen, Letter to Aline Saarinen, April 10-11, 1953

Architect Eero Saarinen, famous for his futuristic designs for JFK Airport and other midcentury megastructures, had what would now be diagnosed as dyslexia. He experimented with handwriting as a way to mediate his slight difficulty with reading and writing — especially in a second language (his first was Finnish). Sometimes his handwriting was reversed, but it was always organized, reflecting his precision in all forms of visual communication.

Eero Saarinen, Letter to Aline Saarinen, (4/10 – 4/11/1953)

Saarinen’s ever-morphing handwriting recalls the shifting aesthetics of his architectural designs. “The big curvaceous signature ‘Eero’ resembles the boldly curved shapes in his Ingalls Rink at Yale, TWA Terminal at JFK Airport, and Dulles Airport,” writes architectural historian Jayne Merkel in the book. “Some letters to his second wife, Aline, are written in capitals whose shape recalls the boxy glass-walled buildings he designed for General Motors, Bell Labs, and IBM.”

Eero Saarinen, Letter to Aline Saarinen, (4/10 – 4/11/1953)

Writing to his second wife in 1953, in measured, small capitals with “LOVE EERO” drawn in cheerful outlined blocks, he subtly comments on this artistic aspect of handwriting, describing “drawing your letter on the plane.” “I translate everything into architecture,” he writes. “You could now say ‘He even sees his closest friends as stone and concrete.’”

Ray Johnson, Letter to Eva Lee, September 15, 1969

Ray Johnson’s visual art is inseparable from his handwritten letters: In the 1960s, he founded the New York Correspondance [sic] School (NYCS) a mail art network that’s still active today. In Johnson’s later, reclusive years living in Long Island, handwritten letters had largely replaced physical contact with his artist friends — among them, Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, William S. Burroughs, Louise Nevelson, and Lynda Benglis. Entire exhibits have been devoted to his personal correspondence, in which letterforms merge with surreal illustrations. 

Ray Johnson, letter to Eva Lee (1969)

Johnson was particularly interested in handwriting, “especially how it would change depending on the intended reader: perhaps cursive for a more formal recipient or casual print for someone familiar,” writes art historian Gillian Pistell in the book. This 1969 note to the owner of the eponymous Eva Lee Gallery in Great Neck, New York is an example of written correspondence distilled to its most basic and childlike: “EVA- HELLO / RAY,” it reads in red marker, accented with Johnson’s signature bunny head.

Lenore Tawney, Letter to Maryette Charlton, January 27, 1970

“Words and letters can be compacted to a dense knot or drawn out to great length … They could be plaited [or] twisted,” wrote pioneering collage and fiber artist Lenore Tawney in her diary, suggesting a connection between the lines of letters and the threads with which she worked.

Lenore Tawney, Letter to Maryette Charlton (1/27/1970)

Tawney often accented her collages with cursive phrases, as much for their undulating lines as their poetic content. “On the threads I will paint — like rain — gold … In a way this gold will be like script, a field of script, holy writing,” she wrote. In this postcard and letter, Tawney reflects in delicate script on her visit in Kyoto with a Zen master who gifted her “a square of calligraphy, with fine characters.”

Lenore Tawney, Letter to Maryette Charlton (1/27/1970)

Maxfield Parrish, Letter to Martin Birnbaum, December 4, 1918

Maxfield Parrish, whom Norman Rockwell declared his “idol,” defined the Golden Age of Illustration with his luminous neoclassical pictures for early 20th century children’s books. With its flamboyant, bulging B and curlicued Ps, this 1918 letter is one of several in the book that sparks a real nostalgia for the dying art of penmanship. The aesthetic echoes the fanciful storybook scenes he painted in books like L. Frank Baum’s Mother Goose in Prose and Arabian Nights: The letter looks like it could’ve been found one a desk inside one of his illustrated castles. 

Maxfield Parrish, Letter to Martin Birnbaum, December 4, 1918

“The deliberate, lyrical handwriting suggests his lifelong urge to embellish even the most mundane productions,” writes Sylvia L. Yount, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The content of the letter, sent to a New York acquaintance, isn’t exactly the stuff of Arabian Nights, but it offers a glimpse of the artist’s self-deprecating humor: “Alas, I wish I had, but I have not a single thing for that lovely rich lady,” Parrish writes. “When last in New York I fell in with a bad crowd and got all tied up with some work for the Red Cross, so I’m working day and night on some very bad things for their Christmas shinde.” He also hints at getting sick of requests for his signature “Parrish blue.” 

George Catlin, Letter to D.S. Gregory, July 19-August 21, 1834

George Catlin, Letter to D. S. Gregory (July 19–August 21, 1834)

In 1834, artist George Catlin traveled through Red River, an area of Oklahoma occupied by many American Indians and few settlers, headed for a Comanche village. With a regiment of dragoons (mounted cavalry), he was sent to maintain peace in the territory by the US government. He was also on a mission to paint portraits of as many American Indians as possible for his Indian Gallery collection. “Catlin’s paintings were sometimes little more than sketches, deftly but hurriedly done,” William Truettner, Senior Curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, writes. “In the field, Catlin’s brush could move as rapidly as his pencil.” In this letter, he sends “5 words” quickly to Dudley Gregory, brother of his wife, Clara, about the payment of a bill. In rushed but still elegant script on yellowed parchment with red ceiling wax, he describes how “picturesque” he finds “800 mounted men on these green prairies.”

George Catlin, Letter to D. S. Gregory (July 19–August 21, 1834)

Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (Princeton Architectural Press) is available from Amazon and other selected booksellers for $18. 

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