The importance of reading, writing letters in art

Some say the true value of art is that it presents a mirror to us as humans, and the better artists are able to capture and reflect our emotions back to us – no matter how pleasant or unpleasant they can feel sometimes.

Visual art especially is a wonderful way to see our past and perhaps speculate at our future, since paintings and sculptures not only include realistic figures of actual, or even ideal, people but some of the settings and objects that were in the artist’s world when he or she created their work. Perhaps food or cutlery on a table or their clothing can give a deeper look into their life, whether it was a decade ago or even centuries prior.

One element that often shows up in classical paintings is the letter. Yes, before the Internet and our mobile devices, paper letters of note were primarily how we communicated with each other. So, looking through thousands of years of artwork and you’ll likely see plenty of parchment, paper, pens, sealing wax, and other tools that people used to correspond. Some missives are actively being written or read in their paintings, others may be just letters of note in the background, giving the impression that the subject may get back to them, perhaps after the sitting. Unless an artist gives contextual clues, facial expressions, or an actual statement, viewers also must imagine whether the letters are romantic in nature, perhaps even scandalous, perhaps correspondence with friends, or simply routine household matters.

As a side, it would be interesting if contemporary artists began to include their subjects realistically using computers or mobile devices, and what future artists, scholars, or historians would make of this new tool in our human condition.

If you haven’t been aware of the presence of these types of letters of note in artwork, Google Arts and Culture identified some prominent ones.

  • Vermeer, “Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid,” 1670-1671. The Dutch artist included several correspondence-related images in his oil paintings, including men writing, women writing, and both genders reading. In this case, the maid is nearby but seems distracted by something outside. Many of Vermeer’s pieces just show day-to-day interactions, so we don’t get a lot of information who the subject is writing to or what it’s all about. This and his other works from the Dutch Golden Age are part of the Beit Collection currently housed at the National Gallery of Ireland.
  • De Hooch, “Man Reading a Letter to a Woman,” 1674-1676. Another Dutch master from the same period also portrayed life through letters of note. Here, a woman is looking attentive and interested as a man shares the contents of a letter with her. Again, the audience can wonder if he’s sharing his words or someone else’s.
  • Horsley, “The Morning of St. Valentine,” 1865. The transformation from St. Valentine’s Day from the violent and bloody martyrdom of a Christian saint into the super-sweet Hallmark-themed holiday it is today is downright amazing. A sense of that can even be seen in this piece by Horsley showing a woman looking pensive and a bit amused at a stack of love notes. In the background is a boy with more letters of note to deliver. We also learn that the artist created the art for the very first official Christmas card, another tradition that has caught on well.