178 Beautifully-Illustrated Letters from Artists: Kahlo, Calder, Man Ray & More


Eight years ago—that’s some­thing like five decades in Inter­net time—the Smith­son­ian held an exhi­bi­tion, “More than Words: Illus­trat­ed Let­ters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of Amer­i­can Art,” which fea­tured a curat­ed selec­tion of 178 hand-illus­trat­ed let­ters, love notes, dri­ving direc­tions, and jot­tings of cur­rent events, from var­i­ous artists. The selec­tions can still be found online, even though Liza Kirwin’s selec­tions for the exhib­it can now also be found in an accom­pa­ny­ing book.

The illus­trat­ed let­ters make for human­iz­ing insights into the pri­vate world of artists that we usu­al­ly only expe­ri­ence through their work.

The 1945 let­ter from George Grosz to Erich S. Her­rmann (above) is to invite his friend (and art deal­er) to his birth­day par­ty, promis­ing not just one glass of Hen­nessy, but six (and more). “Lis­ten: boy!” he declares. “You are cor­dial­ly invit­ed to attend the birth­day par­ty of ME.” This was when Grosz was in his 50s and liv­ing in Hunt­ing­ton, New York. It should be not­ed that Grosz met his end falling down a flight of stairs while drunk, but the man knew how to par­ty.


Joseph Lin­don Smith was an Amer­i­can illus­tra­tor best known for being the artist who trav­eled to Egypt and doc­u­ment­ed the exca­va­tions at Giza and the Val­ley of the Kings, very faith­ful in their rep­re­sen­ta­tion. But in 1894, this let­ter finds Smith, 31 years old, liv­ing in Paris, try­ing to make a go of it as an artist, and hav­ing enough suc­cess to tell his par­ents: “Behold your son paint­ing under a show­er of gold,” he writes. Check out that hand­writ­ing: it’s beau­ti­ful.

calder illustrated letter

Sculp­tor Alexan­der Calder wrote this note to Vas­sar col­league and friend Agnes Rindge Claflin in 1936, con­tin­u­ing some con­ver­sa­tion they were hav­ing about col­or, and not­ing her choic­es mark her as a “Parcheesi hound,” and adding that he’s a fan of the game too. The lit­tle illus­tra­tion, which is straight Calder, is cute too. Claflin would lat­er go on to nar­rate one of MOMA’s first films to accom­pa­ny an exhib­it, Her­bert Matter’s 1944 film on Calder, Sculp­ture and Con­struc­tions.

man ray illustrated letter

This Man Ray let­ter to painter Julian E. Levi looks like it has been wor­ried over or recycled—-“Dear Julian” appears sev­er­al times on the sta­tionery from Le Select Amer­i­can Bar in Mont­par­nasse. It’s a bit dif­fi­cult to make out all his writ­ing: he starts men­tion­ing “Last year’s 1928 wine har­vest is sup­posed to be the very finest in the last fifty years” at the begin­ning, but I’m more fas­ci­nat­ed with the bot­tom right: “I have sev­en tall blondes with 14 big tits and one with sap­phire garters.”


Final­ly, we close out with a let­ter Fri­da Kahlo sent to her friend Emmy Lou Packard in 1940, where she thanked Packard for tak­ing care of Diego dur­ing an ill­ness. The let­ter gets sealed, Priscil­la Frank notes at Huff­Po, with three lip­stick kiss­es — “one for Diego, one for Emmy Lou, and one for her son.”

There’s plen­ty more illus­trat­ed let­ters to explore at the Smith­son­ian site and in Kir­win’s hand­some book, fea­tur­ing artists well known and obscure, but all who knew how to com­pose a good let­ter.

via Huff­Po

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Franz Kafka’s Kafkaesque Love Let­ters

Six Post­cards From Famous Writ­ers: Hem­ing­way, Kaf­ka, Ker­ouac & More

James Joyce’s “Dirty Let­ters” to His Wife (1909)

Read Rejec­tion Let­ters Sent to Three Famous Artists: Sylvia Plath, Kurt Von­negut & Andy Warhol

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.