The Art of Handwriting

July 2 to November 6, 2013
Exhibited in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery in Washington, D.C.

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Writing a letter in one’s own hand can be an artistic act. Handwriting animates paper. The bold flairs of calligraphic script shout for attention, while elegant flourishes of cursive sashay across the page. Free-spirited scribbled letters trip over each other, and distinctive dashes help direct traffic. Some crossed t’s and dotted i’s stand alert, and others slump or sway into their neighbors. Every message brims with the personality of the writer at the moment of interplay between hand, eye, mind, pen, and paper.

The letters here, from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, show that an artist might put pen to paper just as he or she would apply a line to a drawing. For each artist, a leading authority interprets how the pressure of line and sense of rhythm speak to that artist’s signature style. And questions of biography arise: does the handwriting confirm assumptions about the artist, or does it suggest a new understanding?

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The Art of Handwriting

Carl Andre letter to Nancy Holt

Carl Andre letter to Nancy Holt, 1971 July 13

Creator: Carl Andre

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The Art of Handwriting

Carl Andre postcard to Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt

Carl Andre postcard to Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt, 1958 July 22

Creator: Carl Andre

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The Art of Handwriting

Berenice Abbott letter, Berlin, Germany, to John Henry Bradley Storrs, Paris, France

Berenice Abbott letter, Berlin, Germany, to John Henry Bradley Storrs, Paris, France, 1921 Oct. 16

Creator: Berenice Abbott

In 1921, Berenice Abbott—frustrated by the United States’ increasingly commercial culture—left New York City for Paris. The move radically changed the trajectory of her career: in Paris, she gave up sculpture, learned photography, and eventually became one of the city’s most successful portraitists. Abbott’s fascination with Germany, however, is less well known, which makes this letter, written from Berlin, all the more exciting. In it, Abbott gushes about Berlin’s theatre, music, architecture, and art. She’s taken with how independent and modern the women seem. The air, “dry-cold-fresh,” feels healthy to her, healthier than Parisian air. Quickly written and to the point, there is nothing overly decorative or lavish about Abbott’s handwriting. Yet the feeling of speed, the flow of her cursive, the manner in which she writes against the grain on the third page and crowds the edge on the fourth—these qualities communicate her exuberance and certainty of observation, as well as her commitment to an artist’s life.


Terri Weissman
Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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The Art of Handwriting

Carl Andre postcard to John Held

Carl Andre postcard to John Held, 1986 Mar. 25

Creator: Carl Andre

Carl Andre’s gridded postcards, stuffed with sturdy capital letters, are a doppelgänger to the metallic plates and stacked timbers of his minimalist floor sculptures. Instead of writing on lined paper, Andre inscribed the blank page with such geometric rigor that the outline of the text constrains each individual letter. But from within this prison, the letters flow assertively across the page as a stream of right angles and parabolas, triangles and circles—like a gathering of stoic giants standing quietly, side by side. These stout letters, penned with typewritten precision, often culminate in a looping arobase—the “at” symbol that Andre adopted as his signature long before the invention of email. This lone curlicue, straining to break free from the axial planes of Andre’s prose, is another clone of his works, in this case the coiled aluminum helixes that spiral out across a gallery floor.


Randall Edwards
Doctoral candidate in Art History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

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The Art of Handwriting

Oscar Bluemner letter to Arthur Garfield Dove

Oscar Bluemner letter to Arthur Garfield Dove, circa 1928

Creator: Oscar Bluemner

Oscar Bluemner is responding to a letter from fellow artist Arthur Dove, which praised Bluemner’s exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz’s Intimate Gallery. The warm tone and informal format of the note are underscored by the fact that it is written in pencil. The use of soft pencil on slightly textured paper imparts to each line a painterly chiaroscuro that reinforces Bluemner’s praise of ideas that come “from your eye and mind through the brush.” The orderly script becomes looser as the ideas unfurl. The rightward flow of the letters is repeatedly countered by backward-looping curves, notably in the stems of the letter d and in the emphatic reverse arc of the word “I.” These calligraphic loops punctuate the pages of the letter like the notes of a musical staff, evoking the “musical employ of painting tones” that Bluemner sees as the most profound link between his own art and Dove’s.


Roberta Smith Favis
Professor Emerita of Art History and Curator, Vera Bluemner Kouba Collection, Stetson University

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The Art of Handwriting

Charles Ephraim Burchfield letter to Lawrence Arthur Fleischman, Detroit, Mich.

Charles Ephraim Burchfield letter to Lawrence Arthur Fleischman, Detroit, Mich., 1956 Mar. 17

Creator: Charles Ephraim Burchfield

In a 1914 journal entry Charles E. Burchfield wrote “Let the mind rule the writing not the eye … someone will decipher your hieroglyphics.” In 1956, after a celebrated retrospective, Burchfield set to the task of “answering fan letters,” which, he said, “I feel I must do in each case and with great thought and care.” This is one of those letters. In it, Burchfield refers to his painting In a Deserted House (1918–39), which Mr. Fleischman had recently acquired. “It always seemed strange to me,” he writes, “that it went unsold for so long. I guess it had to wait for someone to come along who understood it.” In Lawrence Fleischman, Burchfield found a kindred spirit who understood his art. Fleischman would later represent the Burchfield Estate for more than two decades in his Kennedy Galleries in New York City.


Tullis Johnson
Curator and Manager of Archives, Burchfield Penney Art Center

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The Art of Handwriting

Mary Cassatt letter to John Wesley Beatty

Mary Cassatt letter to John Wesley Beatty, 1905 Sept. 5

Creator: Mary Cassatt

In these two eloquent letters to successive directors of the Carnegie Institute Museum of Art, Mary Cassatt articulates her view of the art world and her place in it. The first, written at the height of Cassatt’s career, shows her belief in the independent art exhibitions promoted by the Impressionists, which dispensed with the long-standing jury system. In the second letter, she reminisces about Degas’s praise and Morisot’s coolness for a painting (Young Women Picking Fruit, 1892) recently bought by the Carnegie. She is proud that it has “stood the test of time.”


The handwriting in the first letter is firm and confident. The second, almost two decades later, is still forceful—but cramped by her failing eyesight. Impaired vision ended Cassatt’s painting career in 1914 but did not lessen her spirit.


Nancy Mowll Mathews
Senior Curator Emerita, Williams College Museum of Art

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The Art of Handwriting

Mary Cassatt letter to Homer Saint-Gaudens

Mary Cassatt letter to Homer Saint-Gaudens, 1922 Dec. 28

Creator: Mary Cassatt

In these two eloquent letters to successive directors of the Carnegie Institute Museum of Art, Mary Cassatt articulates her view of the art world and her place in it. The first, written at the height of Cassatt’s career, shows her belief in the independent art exhibitions promoted by the Impressionists, which dispensed with the long-standing jury system. In the second letter, she reminisces about Degas’s praise and Morisot’s coolness for a painting (Young Women Picking Fruit, 1892) recently bought by the Carnegie. She is proud that it has “stood the test of time.”


The handwriting in the first letter is firm and confident. The second, almost two decades later, is still forceful—but cramped by her failing eyesight. Impaired vision ended Cassatt’s painting career in 1914 but did not lessen her spirit.


Nancy Mowll Mathews
Senior Curator Emerita, Williams College Museum of Art

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The Art of Handwriting

George Catlin, Red River, N.M. letter to D. S. Gregory

George Catlin, Red River, N.M. letter to D. S. Gregory, 1834 July 19

Creator: George Catlin

Red River, “80 miles above the mouth of the Washita,” was no man’s land in 1834, an area of Oklahoma occupied by few settlers and many Indians. Artist George Catlin was traveling with a regiment of dragoons (mounted cavalry), sent to maintain peace in the territory. Their destination, a Comanche village near the Red River, would give Catlin direct contact with subjects for his Indian Gallery. From the first line, we sense that Catlin was in a hurry; he wished to send “5 words” quickly to Dudley Gregory (brother of his wife, Clara), apparently to guarantee payment of a bill, but also to convey the “picturesque” impression of “800 men on the green prairies.” “You will see my sketches,” he adds. Catlin’s paintings were sometimes little more than sketches, deftly but hurriedly done. In the field, Catlin’s brush could move as rapidly as his pencil.


William Truettner
Senior Curator, Smithsonian American Art Museum

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The Art of Handwriting

Frederic Edwin Church letter to Martin Johnson Heade

Frederic Edwin Church letter to Martin Johnson Heade, 1870 Oct. 24

Creator: Frederic Edwin Church

Frederic Church’s rhetorical flourishes are matched by the exuberance of his handwriting. His flowing cursive script and embellished capital letters convey his enjoyment as he writes to one of his favorite correspondents, fellow landscape painter Martin Johnson Heade. Heade tended to bring out the best and worst in Church, encouraging Church’s delight in puns and egging on his sarcastic wit. This letter is typical of the ebullience with which Church penned his thoughts, here ranging from admonitions about the art market to a progress report on the building of his home, Olana. The handwriting itself echoes the brushwork found in Church’s oil sketches, in which the rapid back-and-forth of his brush delineates the contours of a landscape with lyrical flair. Church pens his words into pictures with consummate ease, displaying a gift for casual communication in both media.


Eleanor Harvey
Senior Curator, Smithsonian American Art Museum

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The Art of Handwriting

Hanne Darboven letter to Lucy R. Lippard and Charles Simonds

Hanne Darboven letter to Lucy R. Lippard and Charles Simonds, 1973 Oct. 3 - 4

Creator: Hanne Darboven

This letter, from conceptual artist Hanne Darboven to critic and curator Lucy Lippard, does not convey much information in the conventional sense. Visually and conceptually complex, it exemplifies Darboven’s art, as it provocatively blurs boundaries between gestural art, abstract drawing, and handwriting. It interweaves quotations from T.S. Eliot, a passing mention that she had written to mutual friends (Sol and Carl), and a remark about a possible visit to New York, scrawled in green. It includes wavy lines that are too regular and repetitive to be “real” words, “dashes” written out as words across the page, and philosophical phrases (“nothing never ends”). These all come across cumulatively as an expression of affection for a friend, an ongoing commitment to daily labor—sitting solitary at a worktable, filling countless pages like this one—and an expanded notion of art that subverts modernism’s need for precious materials and mediums, like marble and oil paint.


Daniel Adler
Associate Professor of Modern Art, Department of Visual Arts, York University, Canada

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The Art of Handwriting

Willem de Kooning letter to Michael Loew

Willem de Kooning letter to Michael Loew, 1966 Mar. 28

Creator: Willem De Kooning

Trained in commercial design, Willem de Kooning was more of a letter painter than writer. As an undocumented immigrant in New York, he survived by creating signage and illustrations for advertising. His commercial experience extended to his artistic technique—he might paint a curving and angled form as if it were the letter P, articulating the closed loop by tracing its rounded and straight edges from both inside and outside the form. The process resulted in a tapered, linear effect characteristic of the shapes that take form in both his abstractions and his human figures. These variable angles and loops twist and turn organically. To grasp the de Kooning aesthetic, inspect his handwritten address on an envelope: 280 — 9th Avenue. The closed ovals and open curves, the acute angle of the number 2, the ligature passing from angle to curve between t and h: all this is pure de Kooning.


Richard A. Shiff
Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art History, University of Texas at Austin

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The Art of Handwriting

Marcel Duchamp letter to Suzanne Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp letter to Suzanne Duchamp, 1916 Jan. 15

Creator: Marcel Duchamp

During his career, Duchamp produced numerous facsimiles of his handwritten notes--most famously those collected in The Green Box, which accompanied The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even (The Large Glass)--attesting to his attentiveness to the nuance of the personal mark made on paper. In a 1916 letter to his sister Suzanne, the artist first uses the term “readymade” to designate the transformation of everyday objects into art. He emphasizes the term with slanting quotation marks and encircles the word crise (“crisis”), suggesting the threat to tradition that his innovation represented.


Anne Collins Goodyear
Co-Director, Bowdoin College Museum of Art

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The Art of Handwriting

Thomas Eakins letter to Frances Eakins

Thomas Eakins letter to Frances Eakins, 1869 Mar. 26

Creator: Thomas Eakins

Thomas Eakins’s father, Benjamin, made a living as a writing master, teaching handwriting in Philadelphia schools and drafting official documents, such as diplomas and deeds. As a consequence, all of the Eakins children learned to write a beautiful hand and sometimes even assisted their father with diplomas during the busy graduation season. Eakins often used a highly controlled and elegant style of writing in his professional correspondence. His letters to his family, however, were frequently less formal and show a side of the artist not often seen. While Eakins became known for meticulously constructed pictures, in letters like this one to his eldest sister Frances (Fanny), his hurried penmanship, rife with crossed-out words, reveals the artist in the process of thinking—something he would take pains to efface from his art. Letters like this show a degree of freedom that can only be glimpsed on rare occasions in the artist’s oil sketches.


Akela Reason
Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia

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The Art of Handwriting

Dan Flavin letter to Ellen H. Johnson

Dan Flavin letter to Ellen H. Johnson, 1979 Jan. 22

Creator: Dan Flavin

The formality of Dan Flavin’s handwriting, which retains the look (with a personalized flourish) of the conventional cursive taught in grade school, is surprising in comparison to his radical art using electric light. Whereas his art resists associations with the handmade and has an inherently temporal quality, his letters—first inscribed in a journal, then copied in black ink on unlined paper—are carefully rendered personal accounts meant to last and presumably to record the life of the artist. By hand-writing his letters and including long discourses on events in his life, Flavin seems to take on the tradition of artist’s correspondence, in which letters reveal and record the person. This old-school practice is paralleled by his interest in 19th-century American landscape artists, in this case John Frederick Kensett, discussed in this letter to art historian and curator Ellen Johnson. Despite his progressive art, Flavin was an artist who embraced the past.


Tiffany Bell
Art Historian and former Project Director of the Dan Flavin catalogue raisonné

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The Art of Handwriting

Winslow Homer letter to Thomas B. (Thomas Benedict) Clarke

Winslow Homer letter to Thomas B. (Thomas Benedict) Clarke, 1901 Jan. 4

Creator: Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer possessed an arch sensibility that manifested itself in self-deprecating language and humorous graphic elements in his correspondence. In this letter to industrialist and collector Thomas B. Clarke, Homer employs wave-like flourishes of the pen as well as an extraordinary self-portrait to emphasize his claim that the painting West Point, Prout’s Neck, Maine was “the best that I have painted.” The cartoon not only testifies to Homer’s sense of humor—it openly depicts the aging artist’s bald pate—but also hints at his genius as a painter. In the little drawing Homer stands, palette in hand, before the great painting, with his right arm raised in a mysterious gesture. Is he holding a maulstick, working out some question of perspective? Tellingly, the dots on the horizon, placed where one would expect to see lights across Saco Bay, are absent in the finished painting. By erasing human presence, Homer rendered the Atlantic Ocean boundless and created a timeless narrative of wave on rock.


Thomas Denenberg
Director, Shelburne Museum

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The Art of Handwriting

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer letter to Sir James

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer letter to Sir James, 1881 Aug. 13

Creator: Harriet Goodhue Hosmer

Harriet Hosmer’s independence, gregariousness, quick wit, and keen intelligence are evident in this letter. She oscillates between flirtatious playfulness and addressing Sir James as an equal, quoting Latin (Verbum Sapienti—a word to the wise) and finding metaphors in batteries and brakes. To make her acclaimed Neo-classical sculptures, Hosmer started by modeling wet clay with her hands, refined her designs on plaster casts, and ultimately carved large blocks of marble. Sculpture was almost exclusively about the sense of touch, so it is surprising how Hosmer’s handwriting economically skims across the page. Since Neo-classicism aspired to the perfection of idealized balanced forms, inspired by ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, it is curious to see her script slanting consistently downwards. Hosmer’s large scrawling script, covering four pages, sheds light on her sense of self-worth as a woman in the world and speaks to her ambition with regard to the monumentality of her sculptures.


Patricia Cronin
Professor of Art, Brooklyn College of The City University of New York

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The Art of Handwriting

Ray Johnson note to Eva Lee, Great Neck, N.Y.

Ray Johnson note to Eva Lee, Great Neck, N.Y., 1969 Sept. 15

Creator: Ray Johnson

Ray Johnson was the founder of the mail art network New York Correspondance [sic] School (NYCS). Eva Lee, the recipient of this missive, was the owner the Eva Lee Gallery in Great Neck, New York, only a half hour from Johnson’s home in Locust Valley. This quick note—a simple hello, printed in red marker in childlike capitals, with Johnson’s signature bunny head, a lighthearted self portrait that appears throughout his work—is a friendly invitation to join the NYCS. There is nothing pretentious about the handwriting; it is inviting, almost playful. Johnson simply wanted to say hello, and personally delivered this note to Eva, bypassing both the postal system and the social pretense of “Ms. Lee,” as if the two were already good friends. This is a handwritten hello, hand-delivered to a new friend, as personal a communication as the written word will allow.


Gillian Pistell
Doctoral candidate in Art History, The Graduate Center, CUNY

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The Art of Handwriting

Sister Mary Paulita Kerrigan letter to Charles Henry Alston

Sister Mary Paulita Kerrigan letter to Charles Henry Alston, 1962 Aug. 19

Creator: Mary Paulita (Helen) Kerrigan

In 1962, Sister Mary Paulita Kerrigan, an artist-in-residence at Clarke College and a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, spent the summer studying at the Arts Students League, sketching in the streets of Manhattan and painting in a studio. (She later resumed her original name, becoming Sister Helen.) As she noted in this this thank-you letter to Charles Alston, noted painter and sculptor of the Harlem Renaissance, she enjoyed her time in New York and benefited from his criticism.


Her handwriting bears the hallmarks of the Palmer Method of penmanship: clear, legible, curvilinear, and efficient. The Palmer Method was a popular pedagogy—especially in Catholic parochial schools in the United States throughout the 20th century. Through repetitive drills, children acquired a fluency in cursive. Kerrigan’s slanted loops and ovals connect letters to form words with a flowing grace.


Kelly Quinn
Terra Foundation Project Manager for Online Scholarly and Educational Initiatives, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

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The Art of Handwriting

Lee Krasner letter to Jackson Pollock

Lee Krasner letter to Jackson Pollock, 1956 July 22

Creator: Lee Krasner

This newsy letter from Lee Krasner, in small neat script written to fit one aerogramme page, was penned to Jackson Pollock in mid-summer 1956, during a period of trial separation. On her first trip to Europe, Krasner somewhat breathlessly chronicles the lively doings of friends in Paris and visits to Left Bank galleries and the “over whelming” Louvre. Appending that “The painting hear [sic] is unbelievably bad,” she probably anticipated Jackson’s wry smile. This was likely the last communication Krasner ever had with Pollock, who died August 11 in a drunken car crash (his mistress survived). After we read her note that he had sent roses to her hotel, and her wish that he were sharing Paris with her, her postscript, “How are you Jackson?” with its expressive parentheses, seems particularly poignant. Krasner would never get to Venice and the south of France. She returned home instead to bury her husband.


Ellen Landau
Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities, Department of Art History and Art, Case Western Reserve University

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The Art of Handwriting

Jacob Lawrence letter to Edith Gregor Halpert

Jacob Lawrence letter to Edith Gregor Halpert, 1944 Jan.

Creator: Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence’s handwriting reflects his personality and his style of making art: planned in advance, carefully executed, yet revealing the emotional man in its details. The Archives contain few drafts of his letters; similarly, Lawrence rarely made preliminary sketches. He drew with a confident line directly onto paper or composition board, making few corrections.


His cursive capital I is curious. Its tail swings way to the left, with no possibility of connecting to another letter. Indeed, the I often morphs into his initials JL. Written when he was in the Coast Guard, this poignant letter ends with the request: “tell Lawrence Hello for me.” Does he refer to himself? There seems to be no other “Lawrence” on Halpert’s staff or among mutual associates. Next he crosses out the beginning of “I intend,” replacing it with “Intend.” These slips suggest an ego valiantly battling the anxieties of living in a hostile and “very dead” southern town.


Patricia Hills
Professor, Department of History of Art & Architecture, Boston University

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The Art of Handwriting

Louis Lozowick, Bolton Landing, N.Y. letter to Adele Lozowick

Louis Lozowick, Bolton Landing, N.Y. letter to Adele Lozowick, 1932 July 15

Creator: Louis Lozowick

Louis Lozowick wrote this charmingly informative letter to his wife of one year, Adele, while he was staying at Triuna Island, part of Yaddo, the artists’ retreat center in Saratoga Springs, New York. It was Lozowick’s third stay at Yaddo. Residents at Yaddo were not allowed to bring family members so that they would devote all their time to work! The tone of the letter is light, although he describes how hard he is working. Lozowick’s handwriting seems very calm and graceful, and it is interesting to remember that he was fluent in several languages, including Russian, Yiddish, French, and German. He seems almost to draw rather than scribble his characters. The evenly spaced words and level lines belie the writer’s passionate convictions about social justice, ideas that began to emerge more clearly in his artworks during the 1930s.


Helen Langa
Associate Professor of Art History, American University

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The Art of Handwriting

F. Luis (Francis Luis) Mora letter to Rosemary Mora

F. Luis (Francis Luis) Mora letter to Rosemary Mora, 1936 July 18

Creator: F. Luis (Francis Luis) Mora

Imagine Rosemary Mora’s excitement when she received this letter from her father, F. Luis Mora. She was 17, in summer camp on Cape Cod, suffering a heat wave and poison ivy. In careful prose with neat lettering in artist’s pencil, Mora sympathizes with his daughter. He develops his thoughts with a steady hand, just as he developed his paintings—from concept, to small study, to major work. Mora was always impeccably attired, and his letter is impeccably written. He was writing from his summer house, where he casually mentions that he and his second wife, May, put in a swimming pool. May had estranged herself from Mora’s only child, who was often depressed after her mother died in 1931. Mora draws amusing sketches to show Rosemary that he was also suffering the heat. Rosemary kept dozens of her father’s letters. Without them, we would not know about Mora’s dedication to his daughter in the 1930s.


Lynne Pauls Baron
Art Historian, Artist Almanac Group

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The Art of Handwriting

Grandma Moses Christmas card to Frances Greer

Grandma Moses Christmas card to Frances Greer, not before 1950

Creator: Grandma Moses

The handwriting of Grandma Moses reflects the mood and pace of her days as well as the nature of the task at hand. Ranging from fancy to plain, Moses’s execution mirrors twin aspects of her character: the artist and the farmwife.


The solitary Christmas card signature is evidence that Moses could turn out a cultivated script when she took the time. The writing style in her letters to friends and family, however, defaults quickly from elegantly flourishing into a pleasant and practical—grandmotherly—forward-leaning script. Legibility falls increasingly by the wayside as Moses attempts to negotiate a demanding schedule, a high volume of family news, and a limited amount of space on which to write. For Moses, writing may have been very similar to both needlework and painting: an everyday act for lovingly recording, sharing, and remembering the riches of family life.


Leslie Umberger
Curator of Folk and Self-taught Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum

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The Art of Handwriting

Grandma Moses Christmas card to Frances and Mary Virginia Greer

Grandma Moses Christmas card to Frances and Mary Virginia Greer, 1953 Dec. 26

Creator: Grandma Moses

The handwriting of Grandma Moses reflects the mood and pace of her days as well as the nature of the task at hand. Ranging from fancy to plain, Moses’s execution mirrors twin aspects of her character: the artist and the farmwife.


The solitary Christmas card signature is evidence that Moses could turn out a cultivated script when she took the time. The writing style in her letters to friends and family, however, defaults quickly from elegantly flourishing into a pleasant and practical—grandmotherly—forward-leaning script. Legibility falls increasingly by the wayside as Moses attempts to negotiate a demanding schedule, a high volume of family news, and a limited amount of space on which to write. For Moses, writing may have been very similar to both needlework and painting: an everyday act for lovingly recording, sharing, and remembering the riches of family life.


Leslie Umberger
Curator of Folk and Self-taught Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum

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The Art of Handwriting

Robert Motherwell letter to Joseph Cornell

Robert Motherwell letter to Joseph Cornell, 1950 Feb. 18

Creator: Robert Burns Motherwell

Robert Motherwell discovered his artistic voice through the Surrealist concept of “psychic automatism” or drawing with no preconceived notions in order to discover visual ideas. Psychic automatism was, Motherwell explained, a kind of scribbling or doodling, although he practiced his doodling on a grand scale. Even people who doodle on a pad while talking on the telephone will reveal something of themselves in the pressure of the pen or weight of a line. So it is with handwriting


This letter to Joseph Cornell, written in 1950 as Motherwell prepared for the first exhibition of his Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, is notable for the rhythmic pattern of long, insistent vertical lines and the compression of the letters in between. This is not dissimilar to the vertical bars and compressed ovals that would make up the Elegy series. The writing displays the confidence of an artist coming into his own.


Tim Clifford
Chief Researcher, Robert Motherwell Catalogue Raisonné Project, Dedalus Foundation

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The Art of Handwriting

Isamu Noguchi, New York, N.Y. letter to Andrée Ruellan, Paris, France

Isamu Noguchi, New York, N.Y. letter to Andrée Ruellan, Paris, France, 1924 Apr. 12

Creator: Isamu Noguchi

Isamu Noguchi writes to his friend and fellow artist Andrée Ruellan—a buoyant love letter from a young man to his love in Paris. Born in Los Angeles, Noguchi spent his formative years in Japan. It’s hard to know if this freed him from the rigorous copybook practice of the day—in which students learned their letters according to strict guidelines—but Noguchi’s script is, uncharacteristically for the day, airy and open, exuding the happiness of being in love. Presumably he also wishes to be alongside his beloved in Paris, then very much the center of the art world, and a place that he would visit for the first time in 1927. The handwriting, a loose cursive that appears more modern than the standard copperplate of the day, is consistent with Noguchi’s writing style throughout his life. What is obvious here is Noguchi’s happiness and sentimentality, an artist just beginning to develop his craft, who relishes being in New York, if not yet in Paris.


Heidi B. Coleman
Archivist, The Noguchi Museum

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The Art of Handwriting

Jim Nutt letter to Don and Alice Baum

Jim Nutt letter to Don and Alice Baum, 1969 May 1

Creator: Jim Nutt

Like many of today’s young people, Jim Nutt has a handwriting that consists of an almost childlike printing. Educated in public schools in the mid-20th century, however, Nutt certainly learned cursive, and in longer letters of a business nature he in fact employs that style. Nutt’s spare script (featuring the odd capital letter thrown in here and there) matches his modest physical presence. At the same time his handwriting is in stark contrast to the cartoony, exaggerated lettering he fashioned for the texts that punctuate his raucous, brightly colored paintings of the 1960s and early ’70s. The widely spaced lines and their level arrangement across the page support my estimation of the artist as a thoughtful, rational individual despite the impressions his over-the-top works may evoke. For Nutt, handwriting seems but a prosaic tool. Flourish is reserved for margin drawings and deliberate misspellings that reveal his biting wit. In essence, when emphasis is needed, Nutt draws.


Lynne Warren
Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

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The Art of Handwriting

Georgia Totto O'Keeffe letter to Cady Wells

Georgia Totto O'Keeffe letter to Cady Wells, 1939

Creator: Georgia Totto O'Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe’s letters, like her paintings, have their own idiosyncratic style. Just as she had no concern for the rules of art, she also had no regard for correct grammatical structure. She did not use traditional paragraphs, and her spelling was frequently more phonetic than accurate. She never used commas, rarely employed periods, and instead preferred squiggly lines of varying length that seem to mimic the way she spoke or thought. Sometimes these lines are horizontal, suggesting the quick insertion of a complementary idea; sometimes they are vertical, implying a new thought; and in other places they are diagonal, as if indicating a digression. But her penmanship is always bold and confident, befitting an artist who had carved a path for herself at a time when there were few other women painters to provide ready models.


Sarah Greenough
Senior Curator of Photographs, National Gallery of Art

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The Art of Handwriting

Claes Oldenburg letter to Ellen H. Johnson

Claes Oldenburg letter to Ellen H. Johnson, 1969

Creator: Claes Oldenburg

Claes Oldenburg’s long letter answers questions posed by Ellen H. Johnson, art historian and curator, who was preparing a monograph on the artist. The text is printed in block letters, its style deliberate and ordered. Titling it “No typewriter,” Oldenburg humorously emulates typed script. His methodical control of the pencil contrasts to the speed with which a typewriter would have produced the letter, lending it an ironic touch. Oldenburg has a beloved 1927 L.C. Smith typewriter, on which he pecked out poems and notes over the years. The typewriter and typewriter eraser are iconic motifs in the artist’s sculpture and works on paper. Although half-printed/half-cursive, the Johnson postcard suggests qualities of the artist’s handwriting that perfectly align with his art: linear spontaneity, flair, and wit. Oldenburg embellishes his postcard with an “Inverted Q,” another of his iconic shapes—here waving a flag for Labor Day.


Richard H. Axsom
Curator, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

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The Art of Handwriting

Claes Oldenburg postcard to Ellen H. Johnson

Claes Oldenburg postcard to Ellen H. Johnson, 1974 Aug. 17

Creator: Claes Oldenburg

Claes Oldenburg’s long letter answers questions posed by Ellen H. Johnson, art historian and curator, who was preparing a monograph on the artist. The text is printed in block letters, its style deliberate and ordered. Titling it “No typewriter,” Oldenburg humorously emulates typed script. His methodical control of the pencil contrasts to the speed with which a typewriter would have produced the letter, lending it an ironic touch. Oldenburg has a beloved 1927 L.C. Smith typewriter, on which he pecked out poems and notes over the years. The typewriter and typewriter eraser are iconic motifs in the artist’s sculpture and works on paper. Although half-printed/half-cursive, the Johnson postcard suggests qualities of the artist’s handwriting that perfectly align with his art: linear spontaneity, flair, and wit. Oldenburg embellishes his postcard with an “Inverted Q,” another of his iconic shapes—here waving a flag for Labor Day.


Richard H. Axsom
Curator, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

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The Art of Handwriting

Maxfield Parrish letter to Martin Birnbaum

Maxfield Parrish letter to Martin Birnbaum, 1918 Dec. 4

Creator: Maxfield Parrish

In this letter to a New York acquaintance, Maxfield Parrish reveals in form and content his professional discipline and personal playfulness. The deliberate, lyrical handwriting suggests his lifelong urge to embellish even the most mundane productions. While the letter does not feature Parrish’s more elaborate, fanciful combinations of word and caricatured image, it still evokes a witty exaggeration and theatricality—particularly in the bulbous B of his correspondent’s name.


By this time, Parrish had firmly established his reputation as a multi-talented figure with a clear sense of individuality and purpose—to produce art, be it fine or commercial, for a mass audience. This letter indicates in typically self-deprecating prose the type of commissions Parrish embraced throughout his career. More poignantly, it betrays a creeping weariness toward public work and the demand for his signature “Parrish blue,” contrasted with a growing desire to “do some things for myself.”


Sylvia Yount
Chief Curator and Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

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The Art of Handwriting

Jackson Pollock letter to Louis Bunce

Jackson Pollock letter to Louis Bunce, 1946 June 2

Creator: Jackson Pollock

When he penned this long, newsy letter to Louis Bunce, a friend from their Art Students League days, Jackson Pollock was 34 years old. His handwriting exhibits a number of distinctive qualities: notably, his capital I looks like the number 2, and his capital E is shaped like the Greek letter ∑. Several sentences are punctuated by dashes and closed with little crosses instead of periods. Arrows leading back to the subjects emphasize two parenthetical remarks. Words are often broken, and many letters are left open. The hasty execution is in line with the letter’s conversational, stream-of-consciousness quality. It’s tempting to suggest that Pollock’s sketchy, fluid handwriting is a reflection of his spontaneous creativity, but it’s just as possible that it stems from his erratic early schooling. His family moved eight times during his childhood, so he may never have received the kind of formal penmanship training that was common in his youth.


Helen A. Harrison
Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Director, Pollack-Krasner House and Study Center

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The Art of Handwriting

Abraham Rattner letter to William Austin Kienbusch

Abraham Rattner letter to William Austin Kienbusch, 1944

Creator: Abraham Rattner

Although Jewish by birth, and modernist in his own art, Abraham Rattner revered the art of medieval Christianity, too. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, he attended art schools in Washington and Philadelphia before going to Paris in 1920 and remaining there until forced by World War II to resettle in New York. In France, Rattner visited many churches. The painting style he developed, with clear, brilliant colors mingled with black lines, suggests stained glass, while its swooping lines and swirling shapes also reflect his admiration for surrealism and Picasso, best known in the mid-1930s for “curvilinear cubism.” The handwriting Rattner developed during this period (and retained throughout his life) synthesizes his curvilinear modernism and medieval manuscripts. In this letter, he commiserates with William Kienbusch, a younger artist whom he’d met in Paris in 1937–38, about the rigors of serving in the Army in wartime (Rattner had served in World War I).


Piri Halacz
Art Critic and Art Historian

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The Art of Handwriting

Ad Reinhardt postcard to Samuel J. Wagstaff

Ad Reinhardt postcard to Samuel J. Wagstaff, 1965 Aug. 12

Creator: Ad Reinhardt

“In the evening, after a day’s work,” art critic Irving Sandler wrote, “Ad would have a few drinks and write postcards to his friends and enemies in an elegant and distinctive script.” Whether letters, articles, reviews, or quotations for his cartoon-collages, Ad Reinhardt’s texts were almost exclusively handwritten in careful calligraphic capitals. Nowhere is the contrast between his prolific words and his reticent abstract paintings more clear than in his postcards to Wadsworth Atheneum curator Samuel Wagstaff. And yet to know Reinhardt’s art is to know his writing. A connection to the alliterative puns of Reinhardt’s cartoons is evident, but his postcards also mirror his fondness for series and formula (he painted only black paintings for the last 14 years of his life, and only 5-by-5-foot canvases for the last seven) and his desire to eliminate personality from his brushstroke. And yet, just as with his iconic paintings, Reinhardt’s handwriting could not be more of a signature.


Prudence Peiffer
Art Historian and Senior Editor at Artforum magazine

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The Art of Handwriting

Ad Reinhardt postcard to Samuel J. Wagstaff

Ad Reinhardt postcard to Samuel J. Wagstaff, 1964 July 23

Creator: Ad Reinhardt

“In the evening, after a day’s work,” art critic Irving Sandler wrote, “Ad would have a few drinks and write postcards to his friends and enemies in an elegant and distinctive script.” Whether letters, articles, reviews, or quotations for his cartoon-collages, Ad Reinhardt’s texts were almost exclusively handwritten in careful calligraphic capitals. Nowhere is the contrast between his prolific words and his reticent abstract paintings more clear than in his postcards to Wadsworth Atheneum curator Samuel Wagstaff. And yet to know Reinhardt’s art is to know his writing. A connection to the alliterative puns of Reinhardt’s cartoons is evident, but his postcards also mirror his fondness for series and formula (he painted only black paintings for the last 14 years of his life, and only 5-by-5-foot canvases for the last seven) and his desire to eliminate personality from his brushstroke. And yet, just as with his iconic paintings, Reinhardt’s handwriting could not be more of a signature.


Prudence Peiffer
Art Historian and Senior Editor at Artforum magazine

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The Art of Handwriting

Eero Saarinen letter to Aline Saarinen

Eero Saarinen letter to Aline Saarinen, 1953

Creator: Eero Saarinen

Eero Saarinen didn’t have one handwriting. He had several that he used concurrently, just as he worked in several architectural styles at the same time. The big curvaceous signature “Eero” resembles the boldly curved shapes in his Hockey Rink at Yale, TWA Terminal at JFK, and Dulles Airport. Some letters to his second wife, Aline, are “written” in boxy capitals that recall the boxy glass-walled buildings he designed for General Motors, Bell Labs, and IBM. Other notes are in a small back-sloping script. In one letter, he prints along the edges and tucks comments into white spaces—quirky techniques as varied as those he employed in the stony CBS Building in New York, the crystalline Law School Library in Chicago, and the massive Morse and Stiles Colleges at Yale. Saarinen’s letters reveal his tendency to organize his thoughts in lists, his sweetness and sense of humor, his dedication to work, and his difficulty with spelling. (His first language was Finnish.)


Jayne Merkel
Architectural Historian, Journalist, and Author, New York, NY

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The Art of Handwriting

Eero Saarinen letter to Aline Saarinen

Eero Saarinen letter to Aline Saarinen, 1953

Creator: Eero Saarinen

Eero Saarinen didn’t have one handwriting. He had several that he used concurrently, just as he worked in several architectural styles at the same time. The big curvaceous signature “Eero” resembles the boldly curved shapes in his Hockey Rink at Yale, TWA Terminal at JFK, and Dulles Airport. Some letters to his second wife, Aline, are “written” in boxy capitals that recall the boxy glass-walled buildings he designed for General Motors, Bell Labs, and IBM. Other notes are in a small back-sloping script. In one letter, he prints along the edges and tucks comments into white spaces—quirky techniques as varied as those he employed in the stony CBS Building in New York, the crystalline Law School Library in Chicago, and the massive Morse and Stiles Colleges at Yale. Saarinen’s letters reveal his tendency to organize his thoughts in lists, his sweetness and sense of humor, his dedication to work, and his difficulty with spelling. (His first language was Finnish.)


Jayne Merkel
Architectural Historian, Journalist, and Author, New York, NY

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The Art of Handwriting

Remarks prepared by Mr. Saul Steinberg for a luncheon given in his honor at the Smithsonian Institution on February 27, 1967

Remarks prepared by Mr. Saul Steinberg for a luncheon given in his honor at the Smithsonian Institution on February 27, 1967, 1967 Feb. 27

Creator: Saul Steinberg

Saul Steinberg’s letter is not written in his usual hand, but in the elegant, unreadable calligraphy he evolved as an art form. The subjects of such art are the documents that mark our lives—diplomas, passports, visas, certificates, licenses. For Steinberg, governmental paperwork resonated with his own experience as a Romanian-born immigrant seeking visas to flee Fascist Italy, then to enter the United States from a temporary haven in Santo Domingo. In the mid-1940s, he began to create false diplomas and passports as gifts to friends as well as for exhibition and publication. Punctuated with manufactured rubber stamps and decorative flourishes, their illegibility deprives officialdom of its authority.


The “Remarks” exhibited here belong to a series of drawings Steinberg did on Smithsonian stationery while artist-in-residence in 1967. A typically Steinbergian response, it wittily undercuts the perceived pomposity of the event.


Sheila Schwartz
Executive Director, The Saul Steinberg Foundation
© The Saul Steinberg Foundation

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The Art of Handwriting

Alfred Stieglitz letter to Elizabeth McCausland

Alfred Stieglitz letter to Elizabeth McCausland, 1932 Jan. 22

Creator: Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz was a notorious talker. His voice was a dominating presence in each of his art galleries. The incessant, driving nature of his conversations—which often devolved into lengthy monologues—is fully embodied in his handwriting. Stieglitz often wrote with a broad-nibbed fountain pen with black ink, filling the page with a cascade of strong, bold marks. The broad arc of a capital T or B, or the stem of a lowercase h, stand out as rhetorical flourishes, the equivalent of a raised eyebrow or an emphatic hand gesture. Lowercase letters run together in a seamless blur, driven along by the insistent, horizontal current of a t’s cross-stroke. Yet it is the dashes—which Stieglitz used with great frequency—that speak most eloquently. On the page, they merge with the t cross-strokes, spinning one continuous line. As we read, we hear Stieglitz refusing to take a breath—refusing to place a period—always rambling on.


Kristina Wilson
Associate Professor of Art History, Clark University

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The Art of Handwriting

Henry Ossawa Tanner letter to Eunice Tietjens

Henry Ossawa Tanner letter to Eunice Tietjens, 1914 May 25

Creator: Henry Ossawa Tanner

Tanner wrote this letter in response to an article that Eunice Tietjens was readying for publication. Writing at the height of Tanner’s career, when the artist was living comfortably in France, Tietjen contended that Tanner’s success came in spite of a number of personal hurdles, including ongoing racial prejudice. In his emphatic handwritten response, Tanner took issue with the author’s uncomplicated assumption of his racial identity


This is an uncharacteristic letter for the normally reserved and circumspect Tanner. Note how many words he underlines or puts in quotes. Every inch is filled with Tanner’s passionate response to his own rhetorical question written near the bottom of page one: “Now am I a Negro?” The physical and rhetorical construction of this letter, with its flowing script and multiple strikethroughs, attests to the anger Tanner felt at the prejudice he faced as an African American and the eloquence with which he combated being pigeonholed as a “negro” artist.


Anna O. Marley
Curator of Historical American Art, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

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The Art of Handwriting

Lenore Tawney letter to Maryette Charlton

Lenore Tawney letter to Maryette Charlton, 1970 Jan. 27

Creator: Lenore Tawney

Lenore Tawney is celebrated for her groundbreaking contributions to fiber art and her work in collage. The handwritten word was fundamental to both her everyday life and her work. Tawney was an inveterate traveler and frequent correspondent who sent hundreds of beautiful, often enigmatic postcard collages to friends. A regular diarist, she filled journals with fine script. “Words and letters can be compacted to a dense knot or drawn out to great length,” she reflected, suggesting a parallel between a line of text and a line of thread. Her own delicate script was a perfect example.


Tawney’s script often embellished her collages and occasionally became their primary subject. Not meant for literal reading, these handwritten lines—turned upside down, or written line on top of line—conveyed a more ambiguous, mysterious communication. In this postcard and letter, Tawney reflects on the same event: a visit in Kyoto with a Zen master who presented her with “a square of calligraphy, with fine characters.”


Kathleen Nugent Mangan
Executive Director, Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

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The Art of Handwriting

Lenore Tawney mail art to Maryette Charlton

Lenore Tawney mail art to Maryette Charlton, 1969 Feb. 16

Creator: Lenore Tawney

Lenore Tawney is celebrated for her groundbreaking contributions to fiber art and her work in collage. The handwritten word was fundamental to both her everyday life and her work. Tawney was an inveterate traveler and frequent correspondent who sent hundreds of beautiful, often enigmatic postcard collages to friends. A regular diarist, she filled journals with fine script. “Words and letters can be compacted to a dense knot or drawn out to great length,” she reflected, suggesting a parallel between a line of text and a line of thread. Her own delicate script was a perfect example.


Tawney’s script often embellished her collages and occasionally became their primary subject. Not meant for literal reading, these handwritten lines—turned upside down, or written line on top of line—conveyed a more ambiguous, mysterious communication. In this postcard and letter, Tawney reflects on the same event: a visit in Kyoto with a Zen master who presented her with “a square of calligraphy, with fine characters.”


Kathleen Nugent Mangan
Executive Director, Lenore G. Tawney Foundation

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The Art of Handwriting

H. C. (Horace Clifford) Westermann letter to Clayton Bailey

H. C. (Horace Clifford) Westermann letter to Clayton Bailey, 1963 Nov. 17

Creator: H. C. (Horace Clifford) Westermann

A gift masquerading as an apology, H.C. Westermann’s missive conflates creativity and correspondence. It showcases his fondness for found imagery, expressive line, and vernacular speech. All are deployed to express his “THANKS!!” for a recent visit to St. Louis. Whereas the rubber stamps denote the convenience of air mail delivery, the drawings and text personalize the communication. For instance, the hatch lines trailing the I connote speed, and they lend mass to the letter so that it suggests the bodily presence of the artist himself moving through space. Or consider the salutation after the obligatory “Dear.” “YA” is a colloquialism given visual weight by its blocky appearance, thus differentiating it from the surrounding words. Finally, there’s the signature. Written in a clunky cursive, it evokes the formality of a trained hand, while rejecting any pretense of refinement. Therein resides an entire aesthetic sensibility.


David McCarthy
Professor of Art History, Rhodes College

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The Art of Handwriting

Edward Weston letter to Holger Cahill

Edward Weston letter to Holger Cahill, 1936 Mar. 5

Creator: Edward Weston

Edward Weston, a trailblazer of modernism in American photography, wrote this letter when he was at the height of his creative prowess, comfortable in his style and on the cusp of being awarded the first Guggenheim Fellowship ever given to a photographer. His writing contains little of the self-consciousness of his early days as an artist, and none of the shaky, tentative execution of his late years with Parkinson’s disease. He writes here with a confident, fluid line that is clearly legible but idiosyncratic. Its simple elegance and emphasis on lyrical curves mirror his work of the period, which elaborated a modernism of organic structure, graceful shape, and emotional content. And like his intuitive approach to judging negative exposure, Weston’s penmanship here unfolds with an improvisational flair. His bold signature at the close of the letter betrays a well-proportioned ego ready to take on the world.


Brett Abbott
Curator of Photography and Head of Collections, High Museum of Art

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James McNeill Whistler to Frederick H. Allen

James McNeill Whistler to Frederick H. Allen, 1892 or 1893 June 6

Creator: James McNeill Whistler

The expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler famously proclaimed that art should be an effortless expression of aesthetic principles, betraying no sign of mental effort or physical labor. Similarly, his handwriting appears—at least at first glance—to be unstudied: a series of brilliant thoughts relayed in line after line of quick, delicate strokes, punctuated with an abundance of dashes, underlinings, and exclamation marks. This letter is, however, hardly off-hand. It was part of a campaign Whistler undertook to discredit a pirated edition of The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, an artful selection of some of his earlier pronouncements on art and art criticism. Although the letter to Frederick H. Allen lacks Whistler’s signature butterfly, it nevertheless embodies both sides of his personality. The handwriting is light, fresh, and dashing, a seemingly breathless expression that aims, nevertheless, at total control.


Lee Glazer
Associate Curator of American Art, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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Grant Wood letter to Zenobia Ness

Grant Wood letter to Zenobia Ness, 1930 Oct. 28

Creator: Grant Wood

Writing to Zenobia Ness, director of the art program at the Iowa State Fair, Grant Wood is so exuberant that he forgoes a salutation. “Hurray!” he exclaims in large red letters, surrounded with a hand-drawn frame. And then in black ink, he continues: “Two paintings of mine in the American show—‘Stone City’ and ‘American Gothic’!,” using red pencil to underline the fact that the jury for the Chicago Art Institute’s annual exhibition of contemporary art had accepted not one but two of his paintings. Nearly 40 years old, Wood was unknown outside of his home state of Iowa, and this was a breakthrough, catapulting him to national fame. American Gothic won a medal and was purchased by the Friends of American Art for the permanent collection of the Chicago Art Institute. Reproduced in newspapers across the country, American Gothic became Wood’s ticket out of Iowa and into mainstream American history.


Wanda Corn
Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor Emerita in Art History, Stanford University

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