The Secret Letters of Brilliant People

A new book combs the Smithsonian's archives for the handwritten letters of some of the great artists of the 20th century to see what they can teach us about pen pals of the past. Here are a few of our favorites from the collection.

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Handwriting says a lot about a person, and when it comes to the correspondence of an artist, the occasional doodle or embellishment can say even more. So goes the thinking behind a new book, Pen to Paper, which brings readers the private correspondence of some of the greatest minds of the last century.

Here are a few highlights from the new book.

"This Is to Be Just a Goodnight Kiss"

From Rockwell Kent to Sally Kent, September 4, 1942.
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Who Wrote It: Rockwell Kent

Medium of Choice: Painting, printmaking, illustration, writing

September 4 1942—11:30 P.M.


This is to be just a goodnight kiss, but one as loving and passionate as my salutation is fancy. (And I guess that's a few dozen universes)!

Bobbie and Mary Lewis arrived tonight, with a hundred or more delegates. The hotel is lousy with them. I wish I liked them (the delegates) more. My advertising confreres are most dreadfully dull. Well—they are really young advertising people, people whose ideals are to do advertising. And for such work they are, I guess, just what they ought to be.

I'm sick and tired of them all, and I'm going to bed. To bed with you, my dearest love; to hold you close in my arms, and so wake up with you.

God bless you, dear,



"Close to Impossible"

From Dorothea Lange to Ben Shahn, May 28, 1957.

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Who Wrote It: Dorothea Lange

Medium of Choice: Photography

Salutations to Ben Shahn once more.

One of my children (grown) sent me as a birthday present yesterday "Biography of a Painting," reprint by Fogg Museum. She lives in Cambridge, and heard the lecture.

On the morning of my birthday I read this quietly to myself sitting under a tree, and write to tell you how I appreciate very much what you have done here. I understand, from a lifetime of flashes, what you undertook to do (close to impossible) and write this to thank you for a fine morning, reading and thinking about what you said.


Dorothea Lange

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28 May '57

"Happy, Miserable—Inspired, Dull"

From Philip Guston to Elise Asher, August 17, 1964.

Who Wrote It: Philip Guston

Medium of Choice: Painting, printmaking

I was in the middle of drawing when your card came! Delights—surprises, news! I had not seen it before, but any way it would have delighted me to have had on it the Asher touch. So—this is to let you know we are happy, miserable—inspired, dull—lots of work—bad and good. It would be so [drawing of blooming flower] to be together—Isn't everything just [drawing of a smiling face] ?


smacks from us too—

Philip and Musa

[Musa is Musa McKim Guston (1908–92), Guston's wife, and a painter and poet.]

"I Fell in With a Bad Crowd"

From Maxfield Parrish to Martin Birnbaum, December 4, 1918.

Who Wrote It: Maxfield Parrish

Medium of Choice: Painting, illustration

December 4th '18.

My dear Birnbaum:

Alas, I wish I had, but I have not a single thing for that lovely rich lady. When last in New York I fell in with a bad crowd and got all tied up with some work for the Red Cross, so I'm working day + night on some very bad things for their Christmas shindig. But—early this spring I am going to do some things for myself, and have refused all orders until next fall. Those beautiful panels are above my head getting themselves all nice and dry.

I wish people wouldn't ask for blue, for it's the one thing to stop me using it. As soon as the bells were ringing up here for the end of the war I thought of you, as how you wouldn't have to go. I hated to think of you in mortal combat = you would sure to have been thoughtless in bayonet work + neglect to warm it before using. I'll be down around the 10th. I think, + will stop in for a moment.

Hastily: sincerely:

Maxfield Parrish

Pen to Paper: Artists' Handwritten Letters, $27.50, Princeton Architectural Press;

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