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Exhibition features hand-written notes that provide insight into the private lives of iconic artists
Childe Hassam to Florence Griswold, April 29, 1905. Florence Griswold Papers, Lyme Historical Society Archives at the Florence Griswold Museum.

OLD LYME, CONN.- “Handwritten letters are a performance on paper,” states Mary Savig, curator of manuscripts at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art and organizer of the exhibition Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. The Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, is the only northeast venue for this traveling exhibition. On view February 9 to May 6, 2018, Savig’s selection reveals the beauty and intimacy of the craft of letter writing. From casually jotted notes to elaborately decorated epistles, Pen to Paper explores the handwriting of celebrated artists such as Alexander Calder, Mary Cassatt, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Eakins, Howard Finster, Jacob Lawrence, Robert Motherwell, Claes Oldenburg, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, and many others. To complement the Smithsonian’s collection, handwritten letters from the Museum’s archives form the exhibition, P.S.: Letters from the Lyme Art Colony. Paintings from the Florence Griswold Museum and works from private collections hang alongside selected artists’ letters.

The nearly 50 letters in Pen to Paper date from the early 19th century to the present day and contain valuable insight into the artists’ everyday lives, their creative process, their relationships, and often, some semblance of self. With bold and confident penmanship Georgia O’Keeffe frequently spelled phonetically and used squiggly lines instead of punctuation. As an artist who did not concern herself with the rules of art, O’Keeffe’s letters had no regard for grammatical structure. A letter written by Lee Krasner to Jackson Pollock dated July 21, 1956, becomes especially poignant as it is likely the last correspondence between them. Pollock was killed in a car crash on August 11. The couple was in a period of trial separation, making Krasner’s postscript, “How are you Jackson?,” set apart by oversized parentheses, particularly meaningful in hindsight.

Each correspondence in the exhibition is annotated with commentary by art historians, curators, and artists to provide additional information about the artist, their relationship to the recipient, or the circumstances surrounding the letter. In some cases, using paintings from its collection or loans from private collections, the Florence Griswold Museum integrates artwork by those who penned the letters to encourage viewers to make aesthetic comparisons. In a light-hearted letter from the summer of 1895, New Haven artist John Haberle writes to his wife from New York City with the same sense of playful humor and gift for storytelling that set his trompe l’oeil or “fool the eye” still lifes apart from other artists of the late nineteenth century. Visitors who compare Haberle’s The Clay Pipe, ca. 1890s (Florence Griswold Museum) with his letter will find that his hastily written script contrasts with the exquisitely painted canvas depicting a long-stemmed pipe hanging next to a pouch of Duke’s Mixture tobacco. Haberle’s illusionistic paintings often utilized text. By comparing the letter with his art it seems the artist reserved his meticulousness for his paintings, and allowed his energetic handwriting to convey the impulse and emotion of his mood.

In the accompanying exhibition, P.S.: Letters from the Lyme Art Colony, the Museum uses selections from its collection of artists’ letters to explore the world of the Lyme Art Colony. During the heyday of the Colony, letter writing was an important tool used by Florence Griswold and visiting artists to communicate and confirm their travel plans. Once artists arrived at the Griswold boardinghouse, corresponding by mail was an important part of colony life—when artists wrote to family back home as well as to art world contacts. In these letters, handwriting can conjure mood, time, and place and offer insight into the person behind the pen. In some early letters in the exhibition, artists contemplate their professional futures, and correspondence from later in their lives reflects the enduring bonds they formed as part of the Lyme Colony. A selection of paintings from the Florence Griswold Museum’s collection will hang alongside artists’ letters.

An exciting first in this exhibition is the debut of the Childe Hassam’s painting Apple Trees in Bloom, Old Lyme, 1904. Recently purchased for the Museum in honor of Director Jeffrey Andersen, the painting illustrates important links that can be made between an artist’s correspondence and his artwork. The spring after he completed Apple Trees, Hassam wrote to Miss Florence, “if I may have my studio in the garden (that I had before) and a room I will be happy.” The painting depicts a view behind Florence Griswold’s boardinghouse, looking down toward the Lieutenant River with the studio that Hassam speaks of on the edge of the orchard. Hassam flourished in his rough-hewn studio, the walls of which were constructed with uneven boards. Writing to fellow artist J. Alden Weir, he declared, “You are all well I hope and of course you are enjoying that bully studio! You should see mine here, just the place for high thinking and low living.” Apple Trees in Bloom, Old Lyme has a scintillating quality that places it among the artist’s best work and is a testament to the creative spark Hassam felt in Old Lyme.

In an age of digital communication, these visually expressive missives remind us to consider our own correspondence habits. How often do I physically mail a letter? Is technology a threat to the written word? Savig thinks not, and posits that we should “…celebrate how imaginative correspondence now exists in material and digital forms posing new ways of thinking about art, history, and culture.” A station within the exhibition encourages visitors to craft their own postcard and mail it to someone. Materials are provided and visitors can leave their addressed postcards for the Museum to mail.

A catalogue, featuring brief reflections from art historians, curators, and artists accompanies the exhibition and is available in the Museum’s shop for $27.50. Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (Princeton Architectural Press, 2016) is edited with an introduction by Mary Savig, curator of manuscripts at the Archives of American Art and features 56 handwritten letters from the Archives of American Art.

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