"The Magic of Handwriting" Opens at the Morgan Library on June 1
New York — Handwriting works magic: it transports us back to defining moments in history, creativity, and everyday life and connects us intimately with the people who marked the page. For nearly half a century, Brazilian author and publisher Pedro Corrêa do Lago has been assembling one of the most comprehensive collections of its kind, acquiring thousands of handwritten letters, manuscripts, and musical compositions as well as inscribed photographs, drawings, and documents.
Opening on June 1, The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection features 140 items from his important holdings, few of which have ever been publicly exhibited. Among the items on view will be letters by Lucrezia Borgia, Vincent van Gogh, and Emily Dickinson; annotated sketches by Michelangelo, Jean Cocteau, and Charlie Chaplin; and manuscripts by Giacomo Puccini, Jorge Luis Borges, and Marcel Proust. The show runs through September 16.
From an 1153 document signed by four medieval popes to a 2006 thumbprint signature of physicist Stephen Hawking, the items on view convey the power of handwriting to connect us with writers, artists, composers, political figures, performers, scientists, philosophers, rebels, and others whose actions and creations have made them legends.
“In this digital age there is a remarkable pleasure in engaging with works that were penned by hand,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Morgan Library & Museum. “Pedro Corrêa do Lago shares the passion of the Morgan’s founder, John Pierpont Morgan, for collecting letters and manuscripts that bear the handwriting of some of the most influential figures in Western history and culture. The Morgan is grateful for his generosity in sharing some of the finest pieces fromhis extraordinary collection.”
"From the time I was very young, I have derived enormous pleasure from collecting autographs, which serve as tangible links that defy the passage of time," said Mr. Corrêa do Lago. "I am thrilled to be able to share some of the manuscripts and letters that have brought me such joy—and to do so within the library formed by one of the greatest of American autograph collectors."
The exhibition’s title is drawn from a letter of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, one of the notable autograph collectors of the twentieth century, who once begged Rainer Maria Rilke for a precious gift: the manuscript of one of Rilke’s own poems. “I realize it is a lot to ask,” Zweig told his friend, “for I know the magic of handwriting well, and I know that the gift of a manuscript is also the gift of a secret—a secret that unveils itself only for love.”
Pedro Corrêa do Lago is an autograph collector very much in the tradition of John Pierpont Morgan and Stefan Zweig. The son of a Brazilian diplomat, he started collecting at the age of twelve, when he began sending letters to prominent people to solicit their autographs. Over time, his ambitions grew. Rather than focusing on a single figure, era, or subject, he made the unusual decision to seek significant examples in six broad areas of human endeavor—art, history, literature, science, music, and entertainment—spanning several centuries. This is the first major exhibition drawn from his collection.
Every item in the exhibition bears the handwriting of its illustrious author or subject. Many are personal letters sent to friends, collaborators, or associates, touching on everything from private matters to events of international consequence. Some are manuscripts of works in progress, providing hints of the authors’ creative process. Others are photographs or sketches inscribed to friends or admirers, often with messages that convey important personal or professional ties.
The items on view span more than four centuries and include examples of the handwriting of some of the leading artists in modern Western history, including Benvenuto Cellini, Peter Paul Rubens, J. M. W. Turner, Auguste Rodin, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, and Frida Kahlo. The earliest work on view in this section is a small, hitherto unpublished block drawing with notes by Michelangelo, dated ca. 1518, ordering marble for his first major architectural commission, the facade of San Lorenzo in Florence. More than four hundred years later, in 1949, Henri Matisse wrote a note to his friend Albert Skira, the Swiss art publisher, filling more than half the page with a crayon sketch, thus turning a personal letter into an intimate work of art.
One of the most revealing items is an 1889 letter from Paul Gauguin (which has never been published in its entirety) about one of the most tragic personal moments in the history of art: the severe breakdown his friend van Gogh suffered in December 1888, during which he famously mutilated his left ear. “I was supposed to spend a year in the south working with a painter friend,” Gauguin writes. “Unfortunately that friend went stark raving mad and for a month I had to endure all sorts of fears of a fatal and tragic accident...” Like the Gauguin letter, many items illuminate important artistic relationships—for example, those of Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot, Pablo Picasso and Sergei Diaghilev, and Frank Lloyd Wright and Lewis Mumford. Together these letters and documents provide strikingly personal insights into artists’ lives, creations, and personal and professional connections.
From the accession of England’s Elizabeth I in 1558 to the rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1959, the items on view also highlight key historical moments and memorable figures such as Mary, Queen of Scots,Simón Bolívar, Benjamin Franklin, Sun Yat-sen, and Leon Trotsky. Signed and inscribed photographs capture some of history’s famous faces, including Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, Rasputin, and Emiliano Zapata.
Early letters document the personal and political relationships of Western Europe’s monarchs and scions. In 1502, Lucrezia Borgia, the legendary Renaissance noblewoman, writes a letter to her new brother-in-law during her lavish wedding procession from Rome to Ferrara. A few decades later, Henry VIII communicates with Francis I, King of France, about negotiations for peace with Emperor Charles V. In 1788, Marie Antoinette sends a graceful letter to congratulate her sister and brother-in-law on the birth of their latest child; within a year her life would be upended with the storming of the Bastille and the dawn of the French Revolution.
Twentieth-century historical letters bring to life moments and relationships of great poignancy and drama. In 1917, the Dutch-born dancer known as Mata Hari writes a desperate plea from prison after being arrested on charges of espionage. In 1947—less than a year before he was murdered—Gandhi declares that he must remain focused on prayer and reconciliation even though “The odds are so great that the fire may quench me, instead of my quenching it.” At the age of eighty, his handwriting shaky after a recent stroke, Winston Churchill sends a letter to Pamela, Lady Lytton, his first great love, saying, “I am getting older now the trappings of power & responsibility have fallen away, and I totter along in the shades of retirement.”
The most recent historical document on view is a typewritten page of a draft of Alex Haley’s powerful interview with Malcolm X, published in a 1963 issue of Playboy. Malcolm X compares the United States to South Africa, saying “The only difference is over there they preach and practice apartheid. America preaches freedom and practices slavery. America preaches integration and practices segregation.” His bold signature at the bottom of the page indicates his approval of the interview transcript.
Whether through manuscripts, letters, or handwritten notes and other ephemera, this section features such celebrated authors as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Lewis Carroll, Machado de Assis, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. A highlight is an important handwritten draft of the opening paragraph of one of literature’s greatest masterpieces: Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (? la recherche du temps perdu). With significant differences from the text that was ultimately published in 1913, it reveals key decisions Proust made as he was revising what went on to become one of the most enduring works of the modern era.
The exhibition also displays the only surviving manuscript of a twentieth-century cult classic—“The Library of Babel” (La Biblioteca de Babel), a story by the Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges—and a forty-page manuscript of a play by Lope de Vega, the great Spanish dramatist of the so-called Golden Century, written in 1619 but unpublished until 1985, when it surfaced in a Brazilian private collection.
Extraordinary personal communications in the show include one of only two known surviving letters from Oscar Wilde, author of The Picture of Dorian Gray, to Bram Stoker, author of Dracula; an extravagantly complimentary letter from Gustave Flaubert to Victor Hugo, his “dear master”; and a charming letter from twelve-year-old Ernest Hemingway asking his father if they might go see the Chicago Cubs play that weekend (“it will be a dandy game”). In 1871, Emily Dickinson writes to a friend in her unusual rhythmic script: “To be remembered is next to being loved, and to be loved is Heaven, and is this quite Earth? I have never found it so.” Her letter is a reminder that handwritten letters provide a powerful means of remembrance of those living and dead.
Science and Philosophy
Three of history’s most brilliant physicists—Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking—stand side by side in this section: Newton (who famously claimed to have conceived his universal law of gravitation while watching an apple drop) draws and annotates his own family tree; Einstein works out mathematical equations as he seeks a “theory of everything”; and Hawking signs a copy of his bestselling 1993 book A Brief History of Time by marking it with his thumbprint—now the symbol of the foundation that bears his name and supports people living with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
Other items that suggest scientists are always in dialogue with one another include, for instance, an 1845 letter in which the computer science pioneer Ada Lovelace comments on two of the scientific blockbusters of her age decade: Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos and the anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. In 1871, Charles Darwin, writing to a colleague with whom he had significant scientific disagreements about his Theory of Evolution, says, “I always console myself with thinking that I have done my best.”
From a 1516 letter of Niccolò Machiavelli to a 1951 letter from Ludwig Wittgenstein (likely the last one he wrote before his death at the age of sixty-two), the exhibition features examples of the handwriting of key figures in Western philosophy, including Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx. An intriguing item from the French Enlightenment is a handwritten page from Louise Dupin’s unfinished treatise on the history of women from classical to modern times. She addresses an enduring sexual double standard: how can society reconcile its expectations that men seduce multiple women (and take pride in their conquest) and that women resist all but a single lover? The sheet is written in the hand of her research assistant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had yet to write his own celebrated works.
Music and Performing Arts
Representing a remarkable variety of major figures in the history of music and entertainment, the items on view range from examples of the handwriting of Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig von Beethoven to a signed sketch of dancer Vaslav Nijinsky by Jean Cocteau. In a spirited letter from twenty-two-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to his father, Leopold (signed warmly “I kiss your hands a thousand times and hug my sister with all my heart”), the young composer ventures to make his own decisions regarding his musical career rather than following his father’s strict instructions.
An extremely messy draft page for The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) reveals the energy with which Giacomo Puccini composed, and a manuscript of “No More Blues” (Chega de saudade) by the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim is a delightful record of the song that launched the bossa nova sound during the 1950s.
Finally, inscribed photographs of some of the greatest of twentieth-century entertainers—Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, the Marx Brothers, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and the Beatles—are reminders of our pervasive desire to capture and retain a physical trace of the people whose work we value. Their handwriting and signatures serve as echoes of their presence.
The accompanying catalogue, The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection, published by TASCHEN, is authored by Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s Drue Heinz Curator of Literary and Historical Manuscripts. It includes more than 150 illustrations of the items in the exhibition and contains a foreword by Colin B. Bailey, preface by the artist Vik Muniz, and essays by Christine Nelson, Declan Kiely, and Pedro Corrêa do Lago.
Handwriting Is Not Dead: A Conversation with Collector Pedro Corrêa do Lago Pedro Corrêa do Lago has built one of the world’s most compelling collections of letters and manuscripts. What draws him—and us—to a personal letter from Emily Dickinson, a psychoanalysis bill penned by Freud, or an inscrutable note from Rasputin? Corrêa do Lago joins Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s Drue Heinz Curator of Literary and Historical Manuscripts, for a lively discussion about the lure of handwriting and the joy of collecting.
Thursday, May 31, 6:30 pm*
Tickets: $15; free for members and students with a valid ID.
* The exhibition The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection will be open at 5:30 pm for program attendees.
The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection
Christine Nelson, Drue Heinz Curator of Literary and Historical Manuscripts
Friday, June 8, 6 pm
Friday, July 6, 1 pm
Tickets: All gallery talks and tours are free with museum admission; no tickets or reservations necessary. Please note that tours are subject to cancellation or change without notice.