Scripted Conversations

Correspondence from great artists celebrates the beauty of handwriting

August 8, 2013

Some handwriting you know intimately: your father’s scrunched-up block letters, the way your daughter loops her capital L’s.

Turns out that famous, brilliant people are just like us when it comes to script or scrawl: They cross out words, write sideways in the margins and add playful flourishes to various letters.

“The Art of Handwriting” at the Archives of American Art puts handwritten correspondence by 42 artists from the 1830s through the 1980s on view for you to scrutinize.

“The beauty of primary source materials is that they connect you to the more personal side of artists’ lives, which is something you don’t normally get when you are looking at a sculpture or a painting,” says Mary Savig, the exhibit’s curator.

Each card and letter is accompanied by comments from leading art historians on how the artist’s handwriting reflects his or her personality, upbringing and artistic style. You don’t need to be an expert to see that American modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s scribbles are as loopy as her grammar, while impressionist painter Mary Cassatt kept her calligraphic cursive uniform even as she railed against the jury system.

In an era that is replacing pen and paper with keypads and screens, Savig worries that today’s children will grow up needing computerized translations to understand handwritten documents of the past.

“We’re coming into a time now when generations that are no longer learning cursive won’t be able to read some of these letters,” she says.


In this October 1930 letter, Midwestern Regionalist painter Grant Wood gushes to a friend about getting two of his paintings — including “American Gothic” — into the Chicago Art Institute. “He was so excited,” Savig says. “He decided to [use] red instead of black to literally underscore his excitement, because this really launched his career.”


This December 1953 letter by American folk painter Grandma Moses to a former neighbor shows her arthritic hand in its shaky script. It’s also an example of the Palmer Method of penmanship. “It’s sort of that grandmotherly looking script, one that so many people of a certain generation have,” Savig says. “It’s super practiced because students had to do it over and over. It’s actually a lot like learning to draw or paint: You have to do certain methods over and over to perfect your technique.”

The Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery, Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, Eighth and G streets NW; through Oct. 27, free; 202-633-1000. (Gallery Place)
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Miriam Berg | August 8, 2013