Florence Griswold displays handwritten letters from the world's most celebrated artists

A letter from Howard Finster in 1981. Finster, who is known as the artist behind much of the album art used for bands Talking Heads and REM, includes portrait sketches of “notable men” in his signature style in this letter to Barabara Shissler. (Courtesy archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)
A letter from Howard Finster in 1981. Finster, who is known as the artist behind much of the album art used for bands Talking Heads and REM, includes portrait sketches of “notable men” in his signature style in this letter to Barabara Shissler. (Courtesy archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

What is perhaps most fascinating about Florence Griswold Museum’s exhibition “Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art” is the insight the viewer gains by reading the personal letters of the world’s greatest artists. In some ways, these letters seem to reveal more about their lives than their actual art.

“Pen to Paper" is a selection of letters from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in Washington D.C. — archives that contain hundreds of thousands of letters written by historical figures from the 18th century to the present. This exhibition focuses on letters from celebrated artists, with the premise that written letters are an art form in and of themselves.

As noted in the wall text accompanying each letter (written by various curators, historians and artists to describe and offer insight into the circumstances of each letter, as well as an analysis of the writing contained), we learn things like: abstract expressionist Willem de Koonig’s job as a sign painter informed his curvy yet linear cursive; Jackson Pollock’s vagrant childhood could have shaped his inconsistent longhand — though we’re left to wonder why he writes his capital Es like the Greek letter Σ; Mary Cassatt’s script changed from firm and confident to cramped and oddly spaced as her health and vision declined.

In other cases, these letters also reveal aspects of these artists’ personalities and opinions. Georgia O’Keeffe’s penchant for incorrect grammar and spelling combined with her bold penmanship exude a certain confidence. Ashcan School artist John Sloane jokingly hints at his annoyance with the National Academy of Design’s treatment of his work while writing to Mary Fanton Roberts in 1909 (a fellow artist and friend of Sloan’s). A letter by sculptor Bernice Abbott written in 1921 to Homer Saint-Gaudens (son of acclaimed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens) laments the rising commercialism in the United States and conveys her fascination with Berlin while comparing the city to Paris, where she also lived. She casually mentions that artist Man Ray has the key to her studio there. Heartbreakingly, abstract expressionist and wife of Pollock, Lee Krasner, writes what’s believed to be her last letter to her husband in 1956, during a period of trial separation. He died just weeks later in a car crash with his mistress (who survived). Krasner earnestly asks in the letter how Pollock is doing.

What’s listed here is only a fraction of the wealth of information on display. Other artists featured in the exhibit include Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Ray Johnson, Robert Motherwell, Howard Finster, Claes Oldenberg and Cy Twombly.

A selection of handwritten letters from the Florence Griswold Museum’s archives have also been organized into an extension exhibition titled “P.S.: Letters from the Lyme Art Colony” — sure to delight those who are fascinated in this region's art history. Letter writing, the exhibit explains, was an important tool used by Florence Griswold and visiting artists to communicate and confirm their travel plans as well as the primary method for artists to keep in contact with their families and friends while visiting with Miss Florence. A selection of paintings from these artists, such as Childe Hassam, William Chadwick and Willard Metcalf, alongside their letters, are showcased.

What stands out in “Pen to Paper” and “P.S.” is the human side of these artists — people who have been immortalized by museums but who had their own worries, faults and tics. These letters display these people unguarded — no longer able to hide behind the finished art that they chose for the world to see.

m.biekert@theday.com

Childe Hassam’s “Apple Trees in Bloom, Old Lyme,” 1904 (Courtesy Florence Griswold Museum)
Childe Hassam’s “Apple Trees in Bloom, Old Lyme,” 1904 (Courtesy Florence Griswold Museum)
A letter written by Child Hassam to Florence Griswold on April 29, 1905 (Courtesy Florence Griswold Museum)
A letter written by Child Hassam to Florence Griswold on April 29, 1905 (Courtesy Florence Griswold Museum)
A letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Cady Wells, spring 1939 (Courtesy Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)
A letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Cady Wells, spring 1939 (Courtesy Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

If you go

What: "Pen to Paper: Artists' Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art" and "P.S.: Letters from the Lyme Art Colony."

Where: Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme

When: Through May 6; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun.

Admission: $10 adults, $9 seniors, $8 students, free for ages 12 and under

Call: (860) 434-5542

 

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