Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

October 31 to December 31, 2011
Exhibited in Washington, D.C. at the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery

Death.

It is perhaps the only certainty in life. For those experiencing the death of a friend, family member, loved one, or an admired figure, words are often inadequate to give voice to the intense emotions involved.

When an artist dies, his or her life’s work is complete, and the building of a legacy begins. The Archives of American Art is part of that legacy-building process, preserving the remnants of artists’ lives in letters, diaries, sketchbooks, scrapbooks, and other primary records. Among these documents are countless examples of people responding to death in the art world—from letters of condolence and drafts of eulogies, to firsthand accounts of artists’ funerals and expressions of personal loss. The death of an artist evokes powerful emotions in the living, even as it crystallizes the deceased’s contributions to the art world. This exhibition presents the power of people speaking from their hearts about American art and artists.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Solon H. Borglum's funeral

Solon H. Borglum's funeral, 1922 Jan. or Feb.

Creator: Publishers' Photo Service

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

James McNeill Whistler note to unidentified recipient, Cambridge, England

James McNeill Whistler note to unidentified recipient, Cambridge, England, 1896

Creator: James McNeill Whistler

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Walter Pach diary

Walter Pach diary, 1903 June 24 through Sept. 14

Creator: Walter Pach

The celebrated and outspoken American painter and etcher James McNeill Whistler died unexpectedly in London on July 17, 1903, at age 69. Obituaries praised him as a “genius,” “one of the world’s great artists,” and “the originator of a new style.” The shock of his death was felt in art circles around the world. He introduced a subtle style of painting in which atmosphere and mood predominated. In the summer of 1903, American painter William Merritt Chase, also a renowned teacher, took his class abroad. In a diary entry made by his student Walter Pach (1883–1958), Chase announced the death of Whistler to the group: “Mr. Chase said at crit. that Whistler is dead. Great stir. Mr. Chase spoke finely about him.” Later in the day, Pach tried to sketch but gave up, writing, “the Whistler light was too much for me.”

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Memoir on the death of Rodin

Memoir on the death of Rodin, ca. 1940

Creator: John Henry Bradley Storrs

In 1912, John Storrs (1885–1956) studied in Paris with the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Rodin’s modernist works inspired a revolution in sculpture and set Storrs on a path to innovation. When Rodin died, Storrs was moved to write an account of seeing his teacher lying in repose in his studio: “[I] thought how beautiful, how immortally beautiful Rodin was upon his death bed. Lying there in his studio, amid the things of beauty of other ages and the works from his own hand . . . he himself, for the moment, as one with them . . . just matter. . . . Matter through which had passed a great fire, a great spirit. Matter that had had the impress of strong character, that in its modeling still carried the strong markings of the hand of that master modeler . . . Life.”

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Diary, Vol. I

Diary, Vol. I, 1872 May 10-1874 Nov. 20

Creator: Jervis McEntee

John Frederick Kensett, a painter of the Hudson River School, was known for the subtle effects of light in his New England landscapes. His sudden death, of heart failure in his studio at age 56, affected many artists. Painter Jervis McEntee (1828–1891) wrote about the death and funeral of his friend in his diary, “I went in to see all that was left of the genial Kensett, the body without the soul saddest spectacle in life.” Several days later, McEntee made a painting in memory of Kensett, which he described in his diary: “It is looking out over a quiet but shadowy sea from the rough and rugged hills of Gloucester. A heavy curtain of solemn clouds hangs along the center of the picture with a quiet grey sky behind and along the far horizon stretches a band of light toward which a white bird is flying. [Worthington] Whittredge and [Sanford] Gifford are much interested in it but I have not told them what I mean in it. I think they feel it.” Jervis McEntee, diary entries December 17 and 19, 1872. Jervis McEntee papers.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Draft of condolence letter from Joseph Cornell to Teeny Duchamp

Draft of condolence letter from Joseph Cornell to Teeny Duchamp, 1968 Oct. 8

Creator: Joseph Cornell

Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp first met in New York around 1934. In this draft of a condolence letter to Duchamp’s widow, Teeny, Cornell struggles to find the right words to convey the depth of his feelings as he recalls that first meeting: THE NEWS JUST DOESN’T SEEM TO REGISTER THE MEMORIES ARE TOO GRAPHIC, ENDEARING & ENDURING. THE FIRST MEETING RECALLED AS IF ONLY YESTERDAY, WITH ITS PIQUANT FLAVOR OF CONTACT WITH A UNIQUE PERSONALITY. RARE, RARE QUALITIES, SLOWING MY PEN AND HUMBLING ONE ATTEMPTING HOMAGE. I FEEL MY DEBT IS REAL AND GREAT.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Charles Webster Hawthorne letter to Emma Beach Thayer

Charles Webster Hawthorne letter to Emma Beach Thayer, 1921

Creator: Charles Webster Hawthorne

When painter and naturalist Abbott Handerson Thayer died, his friend and fellow artist Charles Hawthorne struggled to express his appreciation to his widow: “I intended to write immediately and in fact did write; but my letter was so stilted that I didn’t send it. I tried to say something about what I thought of the life and art of your husband but failed miserably.” Hawthorne paid him the highest artistic compliment by saying that Thayer’s influence will endure in Hawthorne’s paintings. He added, “No one will ever equal him: he is unique and stands alone as our greatest artist, and his fine things will hang with the great things of all time.”

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Henry James letter to unknown recipient

Henry James letter to unknown recipient, 1912 Apr. 17

Creator: Henry James

On April 14, 1912, at 11:40 p.m., the RMS Titanic, on its maiden transatlantic voyage, struck an iceberg and sank in the early hours of the following day. Painter Francis Davis Millet was one of the 1517 passengers who perished. Novelist Henry James wrote about the loss of his friend: WE ARE ALL TOGETHER UNDER THE HIDEOUS SHOCK OF THIS TITANIC HORROR, & WE REACH OUT TO EACH OTHER IN THE DARKNESS…WHAT A QUENCHING OF A BRILLIANT VISION—WHAT A HIDEOUS END OF WHAT WAS TO BE! IT’S TOO BLACK AND TOO CRUEL & LEAVES ONE SO BESET WITH WHAT ONE MAY IMAGINE…I SEE FRANK IN ALL THE HORROR, ALMOST SMILING AT DOOM & CERTAINLY RADIATING COURAGE & MULTIPLYING SUPPORT.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Leonard Bocour letter to David Soyer

Leonard Bocour letter to David Soyer, 1974 Sept. 4

Creator: Leonard Bocour

When Moses Soyer died, his friend, painter manufacturer Leonard Bocour, wrote that IT WAS TRULY POETIC JUSTICE THAT HE PASSED AWAY AT THE EASEL.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Charles Dana Gibson letter to John White Alexander

Charles Dana Gibson letter to John White Alexander, 1906 July 14

Creator: Charles Dana Gibson

In this letter to painter John White Alexander, Gibson expresses his grief at the death of his friend Stanford White: “I can’t get over the depression that poor Stanford’s death has put me in. Some of the newspaper accounts have made my blood boil. There will have to be some demonstration in the form of a memorial in which we can all join. A big getting together of all his friends.”

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Lock of John Frederick Peto's hair and a laurel leaf

Lock of John Frederick Peto's hair and a laurel leaf, 1907 Nov. 26

Fragments of laurel leaves and a lock of Peto’s hair “taken as he lay in his casket in his studio,” November 26, 1907.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

In Memoriam poem for John Peto

In Memoriam poem for John Peto, 1907 Nov. 30

Creator: Samuel Callan

Although John Frederick Peto is now recognized as one of America’s great trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) painters, he died in obscurity. Interest in Peto revived in 1949, when it was proved that many paintings attributed to trompe l’oeil master William Harnett were actually Peto’s work. At Peto’s death in 1907, his friend Samuel Callan penned a memorial poem that foreshadows Peto’s future fame: So modest, he no master’s skill did claim, In stature small, his heart was large, sincere; Still, Lights of Other Days may make his fame, And, praise award he seldom knew while here. Lights of Other Days, a 1906 painting, is now considered to be Peto’s masterpiece.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.), New York, N.Y. memorandum to unidentified recipient

Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.), New York, N.Y. memorandum to unidentified recipient, 1942 May 18

Creator: Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.)

When sculptor and philanthropist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney died, the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art drafted a memorial letter to the Whitney Museum of American Art, marking with the deepest regret the death of the Whitney’s founder. In 1929, Whitney had offered her art collection, comprising 500 works by American artists, as well as a sizable endowment, to the Metropolitan Museum. When the Metropolitan turned down her offer, she founded the Whitney Museum.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Death stays the hand of the sculptor: In memoriam, Solon Borglum

Death stays the hand of the sculptor: In memoriam, Solon Borglum, 1922

Creator: Isabel Fiske Conant

This poem by Isabel Fiske Conant memorializes Solon Hannibal Borglum, a noted sculptor of frontier life—wild horses, cowboys, cattle roundups, and Indians. Solon’s life and work was eclipsed by his older brother, Gutzon Borglum, who began carving his presidential portraits on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota three years after Solon’s death.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Resolutions of the School Art league and the Board of Education regarding the death of John White Alexander

Resolutions of the School Art league and the Board of Education regarding the death of John White Alexander, 1915 June 4

Painter John White Alexander was a great booster of American art. He was the president of the National Academy of Design, and a trustee at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Around 1912, he helped found the School Art League in New York, which provided art instruction to high school students. When he died in 1915, the arts organizations he served created elaborate resolutions honoring his memory.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Notecards for eulogy of Stuart Davis

Notecards for eulogy of Stuart Davis, not before 1964 June 24

Creator: Milton Lowenthal

In the 1940s and ’50s, Milton and Edith Lowenthal were leading collectors of modern American painting and sculpture. They were friends with many artists, and Milton, a lawyer, worked for arts organizations and causes. The couple knew painter Stuart Davis for nearly 25 years and collected his work. In Milton’s eulogy for Davis—typed on seven index cards—he writes that “the artist holds a truly unique position among men for only a creator can give life, and as a creator, he makes of himself an ever living reality for generation upon generation. . . .”

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Speech at Joseph Cornell memorial service

Speech at Joseph Cornell memorial service, 1973 Jan. 15

Creator: Donald Windham

Novelist Donald Windham wrote this poignant reminiscence of artist Joseph Cornell for Cornell’s memorial service in 1973. Their friendship began in 1942–43, when Windham was a young writer at Dance Index magazine, and Cornell, a dance aficionado, designed covers for the magazine. Known mainly for his shadow box constructions and collages, in which he explored connections between memory and sensory experience, Cornell would talk with Windham about his struggles to “capture and preserve some experience which he felt had been full of rare sensations, thick enough, he would say, to cut with a knife.”

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

The Occident

The Occident, 1966 June

Creator: Amiri Baraka

An African American artist at the center of the beat scene, Thompson fused abstract expressionism and figuration into intensely emotional paintings. He created more than 1,000 works of art before his death in Rome at age 28 from a drug overdose. LeRoi Jones, a poet, playwright, and political activist, who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka, wrote this poem to be read at Thompson’s funeral in 1966. Later, when responding to a questionnaire about Thompson, Jones wrote, “[Thompson’s] conception of painting knocked me out . . . much stronger than those rich white boys we hear so much about. Bob died because America used him up.”

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Eulogy for Carl Holty

Eulogy for Carl Holty, 1973

Creator: Romare Bearden

Painters Carl Holty and Romare Bearden were close friends. Holty, who was a bit older, introduced Bearden to the idea of abstract painting. They both showed at the Kootz Gallery, and, in 1969, they co-authored the book The Painter’s Mind: A Study of the Relations of Structure and Space in Painting. When Holty died, Bearden delivered a eulogy saying, “He once told me that a true artist should never have any fear of death, because it comes as a repose after a life of the hardest and most frustrating kind of labor.”

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Andy's home at last

Andy's home at last, 1987 Feb. 27

Creator: Doug Feiden

Andy Warhol was a superstar. The leading figure of the Pop Art movement, he was a world-famous painter, printmaker, avant-garde filmmaker, and author. His death in 1987 shocked the art world. He had survived a near-fatal shooting in 1968, to die from a heart attack in a hospital following gallbladder surgery. More than 2,000 people attended his memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

So long, Andy

So long, Andy, 1987 Apr. 02

Andy Warhol was a superstar. The leading figure of the Pop Art movement, he was a world-famous painter, printmaker, avant-garde filmmaker, and author. His death in 1987 shocked the art world. He had survived a near-fatal shooting in 1968, to die from a heart attack in a hospital following gallbladder surgery. More than 2,000 people attended his memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Jay Pollock letter to Lee Krasner

Jay Pollock letter to Lee Krasner, 1956 Aug.

Creator: Jay Pollock

Days after Jackson Pollock’s death, his brother Jay wrote this poignant letter to Lee Krasner, expressing his grief but also acknowledging that Jackson’s personal problems made his early death inevitable.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Mark Rothko letter to Lee Krasner

Mark Rothko letter to Lee Krasner, 1956 Aug. 16

Creator: Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock were two of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, both created new and fervent forms of abstract painting. When Pollock died, Rothko wrote to Lee Krasner, “…in addition to his stature as a great artist, his specific life and struggle had become poignant and important in meaning to me, and were a great deal in my thoughts; and that the great loss that I feel is not an abstract thing at all.”

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Elizabeth Wright Hubbard letter to Lee Krasner

Elizabeth Wright Hubbard letter to Lee Krasner, 1956 Aug. 14

Creator: Elizabeth Wright Hubbard

In a condolence letter to Lee Krasner on the death of her husband Jackson Pollock, Elizabeth Wright Hubbard, a homeopathic doctor who had tried to help Pollock with his drinking problem, recounted her last conversation with him: he “said he was miserable without you—and he always did things wrong.” Hubbard added her own prayer, “May his poor gorgeous wracked soul find peace. The mighty angels will gather round him.”

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Cosmic Ray: A correspondent's open letter to the founder of the New York Correspondence School

Cosmic Ray: A correspondent's open letter to the founder of the New York Correspondence School, 1995 June 28

Creator: David Bourdon

Ray Johnson was best known for his enigmatic collages and for starting the New York Correspondance School (the misspelling is deliberate), an international network of poets and artists who exchanged artwork through the postal system. Because death was a common theme in Johnson’s art, his suicide by drowning on January 13, 1995, confounded the art world. Was it an artful hoax, or the tragic end to one of the 20th century’s most inscrutable artists? The latter proved true.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Backstroking into oblivion: The riddle of Ray Johnson's suicide

Backstroking into oblivion: The riddle of Ray Johnson's suicide, 1995 Jan. 31

Creator: Guy Trebay

Ray Johnson was best known for his enigmatic collages and for starting the New York Correspondance School (the misspelling is deliberate), an international network of poets and artists who exchanged artwork through the postal system. Because death was a common theme in Johnson’s art, his suicide by drowning on January 13, 1995, confounded the art world. Was it an artful hoax, or the tragic end to one of the 20th century’s most inscrutable artists? The latter proved true.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Death rattleart

Death rattleart, 1967?

Creator: Lil Picard

Ray Johnson was best known for his enigmatic collages and for starting the New York Correspondance School (the misspelling is deliberate), an international network of poets and artists who exchanged artwork through the postal system. Because death was a common theme in Johnson’s art, his suicide by drowning on January 13, 1995, confounded the art world. Was it an artful hoax, or the tragic end to one of the 20th century’s most inscrutable artists? The latter proved true.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

A performance-art death

A performance-art death, 1995 Mar. 06

Creator: Harry Hurt

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Ray Johnson mail art to Lucy R. Lippard

Ray Johnson mail art to Lucy R. Lippard, 1965 June 29

Creator: Ray Johnson

Ray Johnson was best known for his enigmatic collages and for starting the New York Correspondence School, an international network of poets and artists who exchanged artwork through the postal system. Because death was a common theme in Johnson’s art, his suicide by drowning on January 13, 1995, confounded the art world. Was it an artful hoax, or the tragic end to one of the twentieth century’s most inscrutable artists? The latter proved true.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Red Grooms letter to Anne Poor

Red Grooms letter to Anne Poor, 1970 Dec. 9

Creator: Red Grooms

Artist Red Grooms is known for his whimsy. In this condolence letter to Annie Poor on the death of her father Henry Varnum Poor, he recalled Poor’s smile and joked about the impossibility of Poor’s unexpected death at age 82: “Henry dead?, he couldn’t do anything like that, he wouldn’t know how.” The multitalented Poor, an architect, painter, sculptor, muralist, and potter, was one of the founders of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Red mentions “the Skowhegan deal” for the summer of 1971 as a “sure thing.” Presumably he was planning to spend the summer at the school. For Red the experience would not be the same. He wrote, “Skowhegan without Henry—ridiculous.”

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Tribute to Milton Avery

Tribute to Milton Avery, 1965

Creator: Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko looked up to fellow painter Milton Avery as a mentor. Avery, 18 years older than Rothko, welcomed the younger painter and his friends into his studio. In a tribute to Avery, Rothko wrote, “I cannot tell you what it meant for us during those early years to be made welcome in those memorable studios. . . . The walls were always covered with an endless and changing array of poetry and light.”

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

List of people to call after the death of Frederick Kiesler

List of people to call after the death of Frederick Kiesler, 1965 or 1966

Creator: Lillian Olinsey Kiesler

Death often triggers a chain of communications. When theater designer and visionary architect Frederick Kiesler died, there was a short list of about 50 people to call, representing his most significant relationships at the time of his death. Included are artists Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, and Willem de Kooning; composer Lucia Dlugoszewski; Arthur Drexler, curator and director of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art; entertainment lawyer William Fitelson; poet Barbara Guest; and philanthropist Lily Auchincloss.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

Lloyd Goodrich letter to Mrs. Max Weber

Lloyd Goodrich letter to Mrs. Max Weber, 1961 Oct. 9

Creator: Lloyd Goodrich

Lloyd Goodrich, who was a curator and director at the Whitney Museum of American Art from 1958 to 1968, was a champion of painter Max Weber. In a letter to his widow, Goodrich paid homage to Weber: MAX WEBER WAS THE PIONEER OF MODERN ART IN OUR COUNTRY: THE MAN WHO, FROM THE DEPTHS OF HIS SENSITIVITY AND POETIC IMAGINATION, BROUGHT A NEW VISION TO OUR COUNTRY …HE WAS ONE OF THE SELECT FEW WHO HELPED TO CREATE THE AMERICA OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

List of responses to condolence letters

List of responses to condolence letters, not before 1960 July

Creator: Dorothy Canning Miller

From 1932 to 1935, Holger Cahill was the director of exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In 1935, he was appointed director of the WPA Federal Art Project, until its end in June 1943. In 1938, he married MoMA curator Dorothy Canning Miller. This is a list of the handwritten bereavement acknowledgments that Miller wrote. Many of the recipients were artists who participate in the New Deal art programs that Cahill headed, as well as art dealers, curators, and collectors.

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

James McNeill Whistler letter to Herbert Charles Pollitt

James McNeill Whistler letter to Herbert Charles Pollitt, 1896 August 31

Creator: James McNeill Whistler

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

James McNeill Whistler letter to Herbert Charles Pollitt

James McNeill Whistler letter to Herbert Charles Pollitt, 1897 January 12

Creator: James McNeill Whistler

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Words Cannot Express: Death in the Archives

James McNeill Whistler letter to Herbert Charles Pollitt

James McNeill Whistler letter to Herbert Charles Pollitt, 1897 April 25

Creator: James McNeill Whistler

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