Pen to Paper: Artists' Handwritten Letters

Is letter writing an art form? Whether through penmanship alone or added doodles and illuminations, Pen to Paper: Artists' Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art (Princeton Architectural Press, $27.50) "offers examples of how writing a letter can be an artistic act," writes editor Mary Savig. 

courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Selected within are more than fifty pieces of manuscript correspondence, each showcased by a large illustration and, on the facing page, a paragraph or two by a scholar summarizing its subject matter but focusing on what the handwriting might reveal about the sender's "style, personality, sense of place, and relationship with the recipient." The overall idea, writes Savig, was to step back "from the verbal content of the letter to reflect on the visual."

One of the scholars, Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, calls Georgia O' Keeffe's penmanship on a 1939 letter to Cady Wells "idiosyncratic ... bold and confident." I might call it calligraphic--it really is stunning to look at. The careful, almost 18th-century-looking handwriting of American minimalist artist Dan Flavin surprises, as does an ornate script cartoonist and illustrator Saul Steinberg developed in the mid-1940s and then used to pen remarks for a Smithsonian luncheon in 1967. (Sheila Schwartz points out that he did not use this faux cursive for his "real handwriting.") Maxfield Parrish's penmanship is "deliberate" yet charming.

Both art lovers and those simply enamored by the art of handwriting will enjoy perusing this book. For those that wish to delve deeper into the correspondence, full transcripts are printed at the back of the volume.

Of related interest is another book from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art called More Than Words, which we reviewed last spring.