Collected by Pierre F. Simon beginning in the 1960s, the letters in this collection represent approximately sixty artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, spanning many of the major artistic movements and schools of the era. Primarily the creation of French painters--but also including other Europeans whose careers encompassed various media--the letters are often surprisingly personal, offering small glimpses into the humanity of each artist. Several of the letters include illustrations. Most letters are in French, with a small number of letters in German or English.
Biographical/historical: Pierre F. Simon, industrialist in the electronics and aircraft industries and art enthusiast, began his collecting efforts in 1968 with the purchase of Claude Monet's 1923 letter to Emile Bernard. In this letter, Monet questions Bernard about cataract surgery and its effect on one's ability to perceive color. This fortuitous beginning sparked Simon's passion for collecting, and led to more than twenty-five years of careful pursuit of artists' letters.
The letters thus collected are particularly interesting for the degree to which they display the interwoven social networks in which the artists operated. Many letters reference contemporaries, and several were addressed to other well-known artists, or even art dealers, such as Antoine Teriade. One letter included in the collection was itself written by the famous dealer Ambroise Vollard. The letters also include discussion of the artists' work and exhibitions, their quotidien lives and finances, the quest for patrons, responses to art critics, and gossip regarding friends and competitors.
In 2004, Simon's wife and journalist Jacqueline Albert Simon, and Lucy D. Rosenfeld published an analysis of the letters of forty of the artists, entitled A Century of Artists' Letters; Notes to Family, Friends and Dealers: Delacroix to Leger. The book offers photographic reproductions of the letters chosen, as well as French transcriptions and English translations. These are followed by biographical sketches and contextual discussion of the letters presented, images of the artists or selections of their work, and a graphological study of the artists' handwriting. The book is available for use in the Manuscripts Reading Room.
The letters presented in A Century of Artists' Letters, however, are not an absolute representation of the Pierre F. Simon collection at The New York Public Library: a few of the letters featured in the book are not included in the collection, and many letters in the collection are not found in the book. For a complete listing of the artists represented herein, please refer to the box listing at the end of this finding aid.
The letters have also been featured, in part, in several exhibits, including at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, the Grey Art Gallery and Study Center of NYU, and the Muse Matisse.
Content: The collection consists of letters from approximately sixty artists, arranged alphabetically, with most artists being represented by one or two items. Claude Monet and the painter and printmaker Maxime Maufra are the best represented individuals within the collection, with five and six items respectively. A small file of eleven unidentified letters is included following the alphabetical series.
The artists' letters display common experiences shared by many artists, as well as entirely unique elements of their personalities. A significant number of the letters reference the financial struggles often experience by artists, such as do Pierre-Auguste Renoir's undated request for the loan of 37 frances "before noon," and Pierre Bonnard's 1885 letter to his father indicating his decision to enroll in law school in place of pursuing a life of art.
Another common theme found in the letters is that of health problems conflicting with the artistic muse, such as Monet's aforementioned concern regarding his cataracts, and Cezanne's 1906 announcement to his son Paul of his depression, which he refers to as "cerebral difficulties" resulting in him seeing "most things as black."
The artists' individual personalities, while not starkly evident in every letter in the collection, do shine through significantly in a large number of them. The following are samplings of several that are particularly engaging.
In Emile Bernard's 1889 letter to Albert Aurier, he discusses at length the life and madness of his friend Vincent Van Gogh. His discussion includes an account ,as described to him by Gauguin, of the events leading up to Van Gogh's severing of his ear, and the subsequent hospitalization.
Camille Pissarro's 1891 letter to Claude Monet suggests their mounting an exhibition with Mary Cassatt, and makes reference to the untimely death of Georges Seurat.
Perhaps the best example of a letter containing an illustration is the 1917 letter from Pablo Picasso, which features a prominent ink illustration of a picador fighting an angry bull. This letter was written upon return from a trip to Spain.
Andre Derain's amusing 1921 letter to his friend Andre Salmon recounts a scene witnessed during a visit to the Muse de Lyon. Viewing the Jacques Blanche triptych "The Car Breakdown," a woman mistakenly took a section of the painting, labeled "Ladies side," for the door to the ladies room. This mistake resulted in her being ejected from the museum.
Orthon Friesz, in a 1924 letter to his friend Leon Pedron, displays the age-old hostility between artists and art critics, as he scathingly complains about such a critic who attacked his work. He debates publishing a response to the review, fearing that it would serve to dignify the criticism.
Raoul Dufy's 1937 letter to dealer Etienne-Jean Bignou includes discussion of his visit to the United States to serve on the jury for the Carnegie Prize. He offered Bignou insider information that Georges Braque has been chosen to receive the prize, which he mentioned "strictly privately in case it may profit you in some way." He also described his plans to visit various American museums, and referenced dining with the architect of the Empire State building, although he does not specify with whom of the trio Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon he dined.
Finally, in a tongue-in-cheek typewritten letter from Jean Dubuffet to a book dealer in 1978, Dubuffet declined to provide an autograph, stating he did not want "to enter into this game of autographs and signatures as do actors and boxers...I ask you to kindly pardon me." Dubuffet then signed the letter.
The Henri Matisse correspondence is followed by correspondence related to his 1946 letter requesting a photograph of the door to a law office where he had worked in his youth. The two items in question reference his previous employment at the law office, and represent Simon's efforts to retrieve a box of materials Matisse was said to have left with the office.
Correspondence from Mary Cassatt is in English, and Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky's letters are written in German.
Content: Consult the collection guide for a complete list of artists represented in the collection