In Their Own Words: Letters by 19th-Century Artists in the Norton Simon Museum
Emily Talbot, Chief Curator
April 28, 2020
Decades before email or even the telephone, artists wrote letters to communicate with friends, family members and customers. And with a robust mail delivery service (in the second half of the 19th century, the post arrived between six and twelve times a day!), writing letters was a relatively quick and casual way to correspond from afar or just across town. The artists’ letters housed in the Norton Simon’s collections—over 50 that range in date from 1619 to 1972—give us rare first-person accounts. From perfunctory notes to intimate confessions, these documents offer fascinating insights into the thoughts and daily lives of iconic figures in 19th-century art.
An 1884 letter from Paul Gauguin to fellow painter Camille Pissarro chronicles a period of profound financial hardship for the French artist. Writing from Copenhagen, where he was working as a salesperson for a canvas manufacturer, Gauguin laments the popularity of a select few artists and his own outsider status. “You see, it’s the same everywhere,” he confides to Pissarro, “and we are always on the fringes of art. All in all it would be very amusing . . . if one didn’t suffer financially for it. My dear Pissarro I am in such a mess right now. I don’t have any money and no way to earn any for 5 or 6 months in this business. As for painting, not even 10 francs. I don’t want to think about the future.”
From Pissarro, the Norton Simon possesses an equally revealing letter, this one written to Claude Monet. Dated December 7, 1885, the letter recounts Pissarro’s recent visit to see the American painter Mary Cassatt and describes their plans for what would prove to be the final Impressionist exhibition, in 1886. “Can we reach an agreement among us about it?” Pissarro asks Monet. “All of us—Degas, Caillebotte, Guillaumin, Mme Berthe Morisot, Mlle Cassatt, and two or three others—would form an excellent group for the exhibition.” Pointing out the challenges, however, Pissarro continues, “the more difficult problem would be to get along.”
Letters such as these enable us to move beyond myth, to come closer to understanding the struggles—large and small—that inform the making of art. In a particularly poignant message written just a few months before his death in 1890, Vincent van Gogh describes his battle with mental illness but expresses optimism. “I am feeling completely calm and normal,” the artist reassures his readers. “The doctor here says that I ought to throw myself into my work with all my strength, and so distract my mind.” “And,” he emphasizes a few paragraphs later, “this is not the end.”
Emily Talbot is Chief Curator of the Norton Simon Museum.