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Intriguing Smithsonian collection of illustrated letters visits Museum of Fine Arts


Hey, tweety, do you remember letters, those forms of communication that involved pen and paper? • It has taken a mere decade for them to become something of a quaint artifact, replaced by e-mails and text messaging. In many ways, those instantaneous missives have been an enormous boon to us. I, for example, can request and receive information and images in minutes, when it could take days in the past, making deadlines and timely reporting much easier.

Yet I felt great nostalgia, even a sense of loss, meandering through "More Than Words" at the Museum of Fine Arts, a selection of illustrated letters from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art. In this as in everything, we pay a price for convenience.

This is a joyous, not melancholy, show, though, a collection of 58 letters, most written by artists who take doodling seriously. Tellingly, the most recent one is dated 1995 and foreshadows electronics' ascendency: a note from glass artist Dale Chihuly to a friend, handwritten but faxed.

The earliest ones date from the 19th century, some by artists little known today. The sculptor John Frazee wrote to his wife on May 18, 1834, about his first ride on a train that included "a picture of a Train of cars, all chained together," going at the astonishing speed of 15 mph.

Landscape painter Frederic Church joked with his friend Martin Johnson Heade, traveling in South America on March 7, 1870, about Heade's inability to paint a mountain because he's beset by mosquitoes, with, of course, a funny picture of the scene included.

One section is devoted to love letters. Paul Bransom, an illustrator who often created covers for the Saturday Evening Post, painted a self-portrait in a 1905 letter to actor Grace Bond, who was out of town. He doesn't write much and doesn't need to; his rendering of himself, lovesick and staring at her photo, says everything. They married in 1906.

Waldo Peirce comes across as a charming roue in a note on April 25, 1943, to Sally Jane Davis. He offers her a third of his heart on a plate, giving the other thirds to two more women and picturing them tucking into it with knives and forks. He paints himself lounging topless on a riverbank. Peirce, obscure now, was celebrated for his impressionist-style paintings in the mid 20th century and for his bon vivant lifestyle. He married four times but not to Sally Jane.

In 1953 the architect Eero Saarinen romanced Aline Bernstein, his future wife, with an illustration of a building he was designing for the University of Michigan. The point of the letter was to give her a work update, but his salutation and closing, "Darling," and "Darling I love you" accompanied by a red heart, warm the businesslike tone.

Penmanship is as varied as content. Samuel F.B. Morse's handwriting is beautiful even cramped on small sheets of stationery in a letter to a cousin in 1827. Frida Kahlo, like many of the 20th century artists, tends to dash off her letters, taking the time to impress her lipsticked mouth three times as part of her thank-you to friend Emmy Lou Packard for taking care of her beloved Diego Rivera.

Two of the sweetest notes are from fathers to their children. Allen Tupper True wrote to Jane on hotel notepaper during a trip to New York, creating a cityscape in which he was a tiny dot on the street. Moses Soyer wrote son David, away at camp, adding illustrations that included the family pets and a baseball glove making its way from home to David's bunk.

Nothing very profound is said in the letters, and that's the point. They are frequent and ongoing conversations, sometimes as banal as Alexander Calder's graphic map (in his signature primary colors) to Ben Shahn giving directions to his house. Or as prefamous Andy Warhol's brief note to an editor who accepted his illustrations in 1949 and requested biographical information. "My life wouldn't fill a penny postcard," Warhol wrote back in pencil, which was probably one of his few nonironic statements ever recorded.

The individuals who sent these letters took them for granted (though in saving them, the recipients clearly valued them in one way or another) and didn't lavish much of their talent on them. (Still, I was shocked to see Thomas Hart Benton make a point in a letter using a stick figure!) But regardless of their sometimes casual execution, individual personalities shine through. We still communicate effectively, but letters like these give us so much more, as the show's title suggests.

To get your hand back in the game, the museum provides free postcards in its interactive gallery so you can hand write a note. (They even sell 28-cent stamps with the museum's photo on them so you can mail them then and there.)

Like the letters in the exhibition, yours will probably not be a great work of art. But it'll certainly be one of a kind.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at or (727) 893-8293.


More Than Words: Illustrated Letters From the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art

The exhibition is at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg, through July 19. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $12 adults, $10 seniors, $6 students 7 and older. In July and August, admission is half price weekdays from 10 a.m. to noon.

Intriguing Smithsonian collection of illustrated letters visits Museum of Fine Arts 06/27/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 4:30am]
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