The death of the artist

Letters of condolence after the death of key figures in American art provide a glimpse of how life is turned to legacy
  • @matildbattersby

The private correspondence of writers and artists has always held fascination for scholars and fans, leading to posthumous revelations, tenuous theorising and claims of discovery of the “real” [insert name of artist here]. But a current exhibition from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art takes a specific look at the letters written to and by the families of influential US artists immediately after their deaths.

Full of emotion, expressions of remorse and grief, the letters are highly charged glimpses of the impact of artists from James Whistler to Jackson Pollock at the very moment of transition from life. They are key to understanding how their legacy would be formed. The condolences, eulogies and articulations of personal loss and first-hand accounts of funerals crystallise how history will come to view them.

Some are simple and heartfelt, such as Leonard Boyer’s letter to David Soyer after the death of his father Moses, which reads:  “It is with great sorrow that we learned of Moses’ passing. It was truly poetic justice that he passed away at the easel. Others are pained and full of torment.

Jackson Pollock’s brother Jay wrote to his wife, the artist Lee Krasner, expressing his grief and giving an insight into his perceived inevitability of the nature of the artist’s death. Here is a full transcript of the moving letter:

Dear Lee,

I can remember your stories of how frightening it was to ride with Jack at times and I wondered, is this the way the end will come for him? When the news came I said, yes I expected it would happen this way and yet it was so hard to believe. How much more trying it is for you.

Jack had so many personal problems that were involved and complicated by his tenacious urge to express himself through his art that the real man underneath was difficult to reach. You new [sic] Jack better than anyone and I admired you for your understanding and ability to take it through much rough weather.

The intensity of Jack’s feeling, expressed through his painting, must have drained off all reserves of that stuff necessary to face this world we live in and to hide his weakened condition he sought other resources which unfortunately brought his end much too early in life.

How to help your loved ones when the need is urgent is a problem that I have not been able to solve; knowing it, and having no answer makes it hard to face.

Jack will be remembered in the world for his painting but besides his painting I want to remember him as a brother who had love and beauty in his heart.

Frank had made reservations for me on the plane but my situation here made it impossible to join you and the rest of the family at the funeral.

Alma sends her love and sympathy and will write later.

Love Jay

The exhibition is at the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery until 31 December, but you can see some of the featured letters in the image gallery above.