Artists' Letters: Leonardo da Vinci to David Hockney

Artists' Letters: Leonardo da Vinci to David Hockney

by Michael Bird


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A treasure trove of carefully selected letters written by great artists, providing unique insight into their characters and a glimpse into their lives.

Artists’ Letters is a collection of intriguing, entertaining, moving, significant, surprising, witty and insightful correspondence from great artists. Arranged thematically, it includes writings and musings on love, work, daily life, money, travel and the creative process

On the theme of friendship, for example, letters provide evidence of a creative community between peers, with support and mutual appreciation that helps to dispel the myth of the artist as solitary genius. Letters between Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin show an ongoing conversation and exchange of ideas. We see mutual admiration between Claude Monet and Berthe Morisot, and Picasso’s quick notes to Jean Cocteau illustrate their closeness. Letters, some of which includes sketches and drawings, are reproduced with the transcript and some background and contextual information alongside. 

Artists include: Salvador Dali, Goya, Lucian Freud, Vanessa Bell, Michelangelo, Mondrian, Gustav Klimt, Jasper Johns, Edward Burne-Jones, William Blake, Marcel Duchamp, Dorothea Tanning, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Picasso, Mark Rothko, David Hockney, Monet, Marina Abramovic, Cindy Sherman, Joseph Cornell, Leonora Carrington, Wang Zhideng, Yayoi Kusama, Yoko Ono, Renoir, Rubens, Eva Hesse, Cy Twombly, Roy Lichtenstein, Mary Cassatt, Jackson Pollock, Leonardo da Vinci, Joseph Beuys, Judy Chicago, Frida Kahlo, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Auguste Rodin, Camille Claudel, Henry Moore, Joshua Reynolds, Rembrandt, Whistler, Anni Albers, Naum Gabo, Kazimir Malevich, Francis Bacon, Ana Mendieta, Lee Krasner, Andy Warhol

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780711241282
Publisher: White Lion Publishing
Publication date: 10/22/2019
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 338,782
Product dimensions: 6.80(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Michael Bird is a writer, art historian and radio broadcaster. He has published many books, essays and articles on modern and contemporary art. His books include Artists' Letters (2019) and 100 Ideas That Changed Art (2012).

Read an Excerpt


'I saw the new giraffe' Family & Friends

Salvador Dalí (1904–89) to Paul Éluard September 1939

In September 1939 Salvador and Gala Dalí rented the villa La Salesse in the seaside town of Arcachon in south-west France. They had been on the move since 1936, when civil war broke out in Dalí's native Spain, staying at various times in London, Paris and at the fashion designer Coco Chanel's house on the Côte d'Azur. In the spring of 1939 Dalí had been a bad-boy star of the New York art scene. Between February and May, his erotically suggestive dream images and objects had scandalised and excited visitors to his exhibition at Julien Levy's gallery, his window display at Bonwit Teller department store (now the site of Trump Tower) and his Dream of Venus pavilion in the Amusement Zone of the New York World's Fair. This consisted of a small building resembling a bleached coral cave, within which seventeen 'Liquid Living Ladies' took turns in a long glass tank filled with water.

With the outbreak of war in Europe, Dalí chose Arcachon as a refuge because he thought it would be the last place in France that German forces would reach and, perhaps more importantly, because of its gastronomic reputation, particularly for oysters. Writing in rather broken French to his friend and fellow surrealist, the poet Paul Éluard, he exhorts him to visit with his wife Nusch ('Ninis') – an offer that Éluard is unlikely to be able to accept, since he is called up for military service that same month. The Latinate wordplay at the end of Dalí's letter, 'Leonoris Finis est', suggests that the beautiful, exhibitionistic Argentine surrealist Leonor Fini has already joined them at La Salesse. In August 1940 the Dalís left France for New York, where they would spend the rest of the war.

Dearest Paul: We have just rented quite a large villa, of a kind that if you come with Ninis to enjoy what's on offer I am sure you'll be like the 'fish in water', come, come! We have so many questions to work through together (in conversation). We are going to America next autumn, now I have to 'push on to the finish', which begins for the first time to become really good, what realism [is] more original than the one I am in the process of inventing – I send my love and demand the promise that you come to see us at Arcachon, their is a very good fish, voysters – Leonors Finis est – Friendly hello, Your little Dalis

Francisco Lucientes y Goya (1746–1828) to Martín Zapater July 1794

Francisco Goya and Martín Zapater first met as schoolboys in Saragossa in the 1750s and maintained a close friendship until Zapater's death in 1803. After Goya left for Madrid in 1775, they corresponded regularly, exchanging news, salacious gossip and offbeat humour (like the false date of 1800 in this letter heading). Zapater stayed in Saragossa, becoming a successful businessman and administering the funds that Goya, who was soon achieving parallel success as an artist, sent home to support his relatives.

In 1786 Goya was appointed Painter to the King, then, with the accession of King Charles IV in 1789, Senior Court Painter. He was kept busy with portraits of the new king and queen, the extended royal family and inner-circle aristocrats like the Duchess of Alba. Goya also had to continue producing designs for the Royal Tapestry Factory, which he had been doing since his early years in Madrid. This work may have exposed him to toxic chemicals, contributing to a serious illness in the winter of 1792–3, which left him deaf. His letter to Zapater hints at the pressures of being a royal artist: his court colleague, brother-in-law and fellow Saragossan Francisco Bayeu has landed him with the arduous task of painting an equestrian portrait of the vain and demanding royal favourite, Manuel Godoy, Duke of Alcudia. The self-caricature Goya adds to the letter anticipates the intimate satirical sketches he made while staying on the Duchess of Alba's estate two years later, which became source material for his phantasmagoric print series Los Caprichos.

God's truth! my scribblings must annoy you, but although they may be rough, just put them next to yours and compare them and you will find that mine win easily, for I can boast that mine are the only ones in the world that are drawn.

It would have been worth your while to have come and helped me paint La Alba, who barged into my studio yesterday to have her face painted, and now it's done. I definitely prefer this to painting on the canvas, and now I also have to do her in full-length once I have finished a sketch I am making of the Duke of Alcudia on horseback, who sent to tell me that he was having accommodation arranged for me at the Palace [El Escorial], for I shall be there for longer than I thought. I tell you it is one of the most difficult subjects for a painter.

Bayeu was to have done it but he got out of it. He was asked a number of times, but the King did not want him to take on so much work and told him he should take leave and go to Saragossa for two months, or maybe four. You will have him there, so look after him and help him enjoy his stay.

Also, you will have that document which guarantees a loan I made and which you are dealing with, but I have a feeling that he will have died if he is one of the two I knew there.

Adios, and if you need to know any more, ask Clemente [Aranaz, Zapater's secretary].

This is me.

Lucian Freud (1922–2011) to Stephen Spender 1940

As refugees from Nazi Germany, Lucian Freud's family had settled in England in 1933. In 1938, after a patchy secondary education, Freud enrolled in the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing run by Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines. 'Cedric taught me to paint,' Freud recalled, 'and more important to keep at it.' In 1939 he spent two months in north Wales, where the poet Stephen Spender briefly joined him. They collaborated on an album of surreal scenarios and sketches, which they called the 'Freud–Schuster Book' (Schuster was Spender's mother's maiden name), fondly evoked here by Freud. Morris's 'absolutely amazing' green-faced portrait of the eighteen-year-old Freud, visually pastiched in this letter, is now in the Tate collection.

Benton End Hadleigh Suffolk

Dearest Spethen, Stephen,

Thanks terribly for your letter. It crossed one of mine I think? Life for me is no longer the monotony of waking up in a cold room to find myself with Clap, D.Ts, Syph, or perhaps a poisoned foot or ear! No Schuster, those happy and carefree days are gone the phrase 'Freud and Schuster' calls to the mind happy scenes such as two old hebrews hand in hand in a wood or a bath-room in Aheneum Court or Pension-day in the freud-Schuster building but now people think of freud and Schuster in bathchairs, freuds ear being amputated in a private nursing home, and puss running out of his horn. Schuster in an epileptic fit with artificial funnybones. When I look at all my minor and major complaints and deseases I feel the disgust which I experience when I come across intimate passages in letters not written to me. Cedric has painted a portrait of me which is absolutely amazing. It is exactly like my face is green it is a marvellous picture. I have painted a portrait and also a picture of a cat after it has been skinned. Do come down here if you can! What about Mrs P's at Haulfrnny in march? John Jameson has been down here for some days and also a man who was a great friend of the strange englishmen who threw fits to whom tibbles was employed in Italy. Here is our Telephone call. Do you realise that if you shaved your nose every day you would soo grow a reasonable beard on it? The firm ought to realise these little things incase of a business drops [...]

Vanessa Bell (1879–1961) to Duncan Grant c. September 1916

During the First World War, Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes and other members of the intellectual-artistic coterie known as the Bloomsbury Group shuttled between London and various country retreats. In 1916 Bell was looking for a place where she and Grant, just returned from a spell in Suffolk with his lover, Edward Garnett, and on the cusp of a long-term relationship with her, could set up home together. Charleston farmhouse in Sussex, first described and illustrated in Bell's enthusiastic letter, became one of Bloomsbury's main centres. Bell's reference to the 'depressing' arrival of her period suggests that she and Grant may already have been hoping to conceive a child. Their daughter, Angelica, was born at Charleston in 1918.

46 Gordon Sq. Wednesday

My darling Bear,

I seem always to write to you when I'm in the thick of every sort of confusion. I have just returned from Charleston, which I have taken – all but the signing of the lease. I found your letter waiting, thank goodness. It was so nice to hear from you – only I'm disturbed at your sore throat. Mine is better. You'd tell me if you got bad wouldn't you & I'd come back at once and make you possets. Please, my old creature, do this. Anyhow I shall come on Friday.

I must tell you my doings since I last wrote. I dined with Roger [Fry] & had a rather melancholy evening but I won't go into that. I suppose it was my fault, because I was feeling rather exhausted after working here all day at clearings out & the journey the day before & this morning (isn't it depressing, but I didn't expect anything else this time) my monthlies began.

Well, this morning I went off by the 9 o'clock train, the only one that connected well with Glynde. When I got there no sign of Mr Stacey, but presently he drove up in a small motor for 2 & whisked me off to Charleston. I see that I'm the most hopeless person at describing a place – this time to my great surprise I saw something quite different. A large lake, an orchard, trees all round the back of the house & farm buildings [...] The rooms (according to today's impression) are very large & light & numerous. There are huge cupboards, innumerable larders – a dairy – cellars – all sorts of out-houses – lots of room for hens – a hen-house – almost too much room in fact. I wondered if we could ever do with one servant [...]

Unfortunately nearly all the rooms were papered with rather lurid but quite new papers. So Mr S. wouldn't do them again naturally. The paint too was quite good, but harmless colours – mostly white or green. I said I should probably white or colour wash many of the walls [...] I think the house could be made quite lovely [...] Lytton dines here tonight, also Maynard & probably Sheppard [...]

Your loving Rodent

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) to Lionardo di Buonarroto Simoni 20 December 1550

Lionardo di Buonarroto was Michelangelo's nephew and heir to the childless artist's estate. This situation led to serious fallings-out between the two men. In the winter of 1545–6, after Michelangelo was mistakenly reported in Florence to be dying or dead, Lionardo had rushed to Rome to secure his inheritance rights but failed to call on his uncle. His professed affection was nothing but 'Cupboard love!', Michelangelo raged.

Things had calmed down by 1550, when Michelangelo's letters to Lionardo are busy with avuncular advice about property and marriage (Lionardo was now thirty-one). 'Everyone tells me that I ought to present you with a wife,' he writes in August, 'as if I had a thousand of them in my pocket.' Money comes up again in this letter in the form of dowry commitments (the bridegroom's family was expected to provide security for the bride's dowry, in case of the groom's premature death) and Michelangelo's desire to perform good deeds by contributing towards dowries for the daughters of cash-strapped gentry. The Marchesa di Pescara was Michelangelo's beloved friend Vittoria Colonna, who had died in 1547 and whose manuscript poems were among the things Michelangelo believes were stolen while he was ill.

Lionardo – I got the marzolini, that is to say, twelve cheeses. They are excellent. I shall give some of them to friends and keep the rest for the household, but as I've written and told you on other occasions – do not send me anything else unless I ask for it, particularly not things that cost you money.

About your taking a wife – which is necessary – I've nothing to say to you, except that you should not be particular as to the dowry, because possessions are of less value than people. All you need have an eye to is birth, good health and, above all, a nice disposition. As regards beauty, not being, after all, the most handsome youth in Florence yourself, you need not bother overmuch, provided she is neither deformed nor ill-favoured. I think that's all on this point.

I had a letter yesterday from Messer Giovan Francesco asking me whether I had anything of the Marchesa di Pescara's. Would you tell him that I'll have a look and will answer him this coming Saturday, although I don't think I have anything; because when I was away ill, many things were stolen from me.

I should be glad if you would let me know if you were to hear of any citizen of noble birth in dire need, particularly someone who has daughters in the family, because I would do them a kindness for the welfare of my soul.

On the 20th day of December 1550. Michelangelo Buonarroti in Rome

Philip Guston (1913–80) to Elise Asher 17 August 1964

Philip Guston was working on paintings destined for his 1966 exhibition at New York's Jewish Museum when he wrote this note to the poet and artist Elise Asher. Today Guston is mainly associated with his later, figurative works in a deliberately awkward, cartoonish idiom, but in the mid-1960s he was an established abstract expressionist painter. After a retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1962, he started to reduce the amount of colour in his work, eventually using only black and white paint. He explained, 'white pigment is used to erase the black I don't want and becomes grey. Working with these restricted means as I do now, other things open up which are unpredictable, such as atmosphere, light, illusion.'

In Guston's large painting Prospects (1964; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra), the interweaving vertical and horizontal brushstrokes create a mesh of varying greys. In its essentials, the balance of open (or maybe solid) shapes and the matrix of intersecting lines is not so far from the drawing with which he heads this note. He may be thanking Asher in kind for a drawing of her own on the card she has just sent him. Married to the poet Stanley Kunitz, she incorporated lines from his poems into her own near-monochrome, abstract paintings in which the brushmarks – as in Guston's work – are conspicuously 'drawn'. After his exhibition at the Jewish Museum, Guston would stop painting and spend two years producing hundreds of drawings – both abstract and representational. He saw this as 'a very significant interlude ... before going into the objective work of '68–'70'.

Guston includes his wife, Musa McKim – also an artist – in his sign-off. They had met at Otis Art Institute in the 1930s and collaborated during the Second World War on public mural projects. By the 1960s they were living in Woodstock, New Jersey, from where Guston writes to Asher at her and Kunitz' beachside summer home at Provincetown, on the northern tip of Cape Cod.

I was in the middle of drawing when your card came! Delights – surprises, news! I have not seen it before, but any way it would have delighted me to have had on it the Asher touch. So – this is to let you know we are happy, miserable – inspired, dull – lots of work – bad and good. It would be so [drawing of flower] to be together –

Isn't everything just [drawing of happy face]?

xxx smacks from us too – Philip and Musa

Beatrix Potter (1866–1943) to Noel Moore 8 March 1895

The seven-year-old Noel Moore received this get-well letter from Beatrix Potter while he was ill in bed. Potter knew the kinds of details that would cheer him up – she had herself been a poorly, lonely child, who had found solace in drawing and the natural world. Noel's mother, Annie, had once been her governess. The fantasy she spins for Noel, involving Mr Mole the doctor and Nurse Mouse, adds to a cast of animal characters that had started life in an illustrated letter to him in 1893, featuring Peter Rabbit.

At that time, Potter was a serious amateur mycologist, producing beautifully observed watercolours of fungi (in 1897 she presented a paper to the Linnaean Society of London, 'On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae'). It was the pictures and stories in her letters to Noel, however, that led to her first illustrated children's book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which she self-published in 1901 after multiple rejections. A book deal with Frederick Warne & Co. in 1902 led to more than twenty further titles, including stories of Tom Kitten, Jemima Puddleduck, the hedgehog Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and frog Jeremy Fisher, which became world-wide children's classics and earned Potter a fortune. The debonair lady mouse in this letter would reappear in 1917 in one of the last of the series, Appley Dapply's Nursery Rhymes.


Excerpted from "Artists' Letters"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Michael Bird.
Excerpted by permission of The Quarto Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction, 006,
1 'I saw the new giraffe' Family & Friends,
Salvador Dalí to Paul Éluard, 014,
Francisco Lucientes y Goya to Martín Zapater, 016,
Lucian Freud to Stephen Spender, 018,
Vanessa Bell to Duncan Grant, 020,
Michelangelo Buonarroti to Lionardo di Buonarroto Simoni, 022,
Philip Guston to Elise Asher, 024,
Beatrix Potter to Noel Moore, 026,
Piet Mondrian to Kurt Seligmann, 028,
Gustav Klimt to Josef Lewinsky, 030,
Jasper Johns to Rosamund Felsen, 032,
Edward Burne-Jones to Daphne Gaskell, 034,
William Blake to William Hayley, 036,
Alexander Calder to Agnes Rindge Claflin, 038,
Zhu Da to Fang Shiguan, 040,
Camille Pissarro to Julie Pissarro, 042,
Marcel Duchamp to Suzanne Duchamp, 044,
Dorothea Tanning to Joseph Cornell, 046,
2 'Like a sleepwalker' to Artist,
Paul Gauguin to Vincent van Gogh, 050,
Vincent van Gogh to Paul Gauguin, 052,
Sebastiano del Piombo to Michelangelo Buonarroti, 054,
Paul Signac to Claude Monet, 056,
David Alfaro Siqueiros to Jackson Pollock, Sande Pollock and Harold Lehman, 058,
Pablo Picasso to Jean Cocteau, 060,
Mark Rothko to Lee Krasner, 062,
Édouard Manet to Eugène Maus, 064,
David Hockney to Kenneth E. Tyler, 066,
Francis Picabia to Alfred Stieglitz, 068,
Robert Smithson to Enno Develing, 070,
Claude Monet to Berthe Morisot, 072,
Ulay and Marina Abramovi to Mike Parr, 074,
Mike Parr to Marina Abramovi? and Ulay, 076,
Benvenuto Cellini to Michelangelo, 078,
John Constable to John Thomas Smith, 080,
3 'Your book on witchcraft' Gifts & Greetings,
Cindy Sherman to Arthur C. Danto, 084,
Joseph Cornell to Marcel Duchamp, 086,
Leonora Carrington to Kurt Seligmann, 088,
Wang Zhideng to a friend, 090,
Yayoi Kusama to Donald Judd, 092,
George Grosz to Erich S. Herrmann, 094,
Yoko Ono and John Lennon to Joseph Cornell, 096,
Joan Miró to Marcel Breuer, 098,
4 'The best I have painted' Patrons & Supporters,
Guercino and Paolo Antonio Barbieri to unknown recipient, 102,
Nancy Spero to Lucy Lippard, 104,
Pierre-Auguste Renoir to Georges Charpentier, 106,
Roy Lichtenstein to Ellen H. Johnson, 108,
Peter Paul Rubens to Balthasar Gerbier, 110,
Cy Twombly to Leo Castelli, 112,
Winslow Homer to Thomas B. Clarke, 114,
Eva Hesse to Helene Papanek, 116,
Mary Cassatt to John Wesley Beatty, 118,
Jackson Pollock to Louis Bunce, 120,
Leonardo da Vinci to Ludovico Sforza, 122,
Egon Schiele to Hermann Engel, 124,
William Hogarth to T.H., 126,
Joseph Beuys to Otto Mauer, 128,
Agnes Martin to Samuel J. Wagstaff, 130,
Judy Chicago to Lucy Lippard, 132,
5 'Hey beautiful' Love,
Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera, 136,
Joan Mitchell to Michael Goldberg, 138,
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres to Marie-Anne-Julie Forestier, 140,
Paul Nash to Margaret Odeh, 142,
Ad Reinhardt to Selina Trieff, 144,
Jules Olitski to Joan Olitski, 146,
Jean Cocteau to unknown recipient, 148,
Alfred Stieglitz to Georgia O'Keeffe, 150,
Georgia O'Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz, 152,
Auguste Rodin to Camille Claudel, 154,
Camille Claudel to Auguste Rodin, 156,
Ben Nicholson to Barbara Hepworth, 158,
Eileen Agar to Joseph Bard, 160,
6 'My 1244 guilders' Professional Matters,
Nicolas Poussin to Paul Scarron, 164,
Henry Fuseli to unknown recipient, 166,
Henry Moore to John Rothenstein, 168,
James McNeill Whistler to Frederick H. Allen, 170,
Joshua Reynolds to Philip Yorke, 172,
Anni Albers to Gloria Finn, 174,
Naum Gabo to Marcel Breuer, 176,
Rembrandt van Rijn to Constantijn Huygens, 178,
Gustave Courbet to Philippe de Chennevières, 180,
Aubrey Beardsley to Frederick Evans, 182,
Kazimir Malevich to Anatoly Lunacharksy, 184,
John Linnell to James Muirhead, 186,
Andy Warhol to Russell Lynes, 188,
7 'I hope to get to Venice' Travel,
Edward Lear to Hallam Tennyson, 192,
Berenice Abbott to John Henry Bradley Storrs, 194,
Georges and Marcelle Braque to Paul Dermée and Carolina Goldstein, 196,
John Ruskin to unknown recipient, 198,
Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell to Maria and Hans Hofmann, 200,
Albrecht Dürer to Willibald Pirckheimer, 202,
Carl Andre to Eva Hesse, 204,
Francis Bacon to Erica Brausen, 206,
Ana Mendieta to Judith Wilson, 208,
Lee Krasner to Jackson Pollock, 210,
8 'I see better' Signing Off,
Thomas Gainsborough to Thomas Harvey, 214,
Paul Cézanne to Émile Bernard, 216,
Timeline, 218,
Index, 220,
Picture Credits, 222,

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