Letters

Administrator to the director Ashley Williams on the lost art of letter writing.

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There is a kind of secrecy about letter writing. You're writing a story to a certain person, and you don't necessarily want to share it with someone else.

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  • Ashley Williams
    1280852
  • The Letter  |  1890–91  |  Mary Cassatt (American)  |  Drypoint and aquatint, printed in color from three plates; fourth state of four  |  Gift of Paul J. Sachs, 1916 (16.2.9)
    7211024
  • The Love Letter  |  ca. 1770  |  Jean-Honorè Fragonard (French)  |  Oil on canvas  |  The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 (49.7.49)
    8071024
  • Elijah Boardman  |  1789  |  Ralph Earl (American)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Bequest of Susan W. Tyler, 1979 (1979.395)
    6511024
  • Sulking  |  ca. 1870  |  Edgar Degas (French)  |  Oil on canvas  |  H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.43)
    1280881
  • Cuneiform tablet: private letter  |  Middle Bronze Age–Old Assyrian Trading Colony, ca. 20th–19th century b.c.  |  Anatolia, probably from Kültepe (Karum Kanesh)  |  Clay  |  Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Klejman, 1966 (66.245.8)
    10241024
  • Tughra (Imperial Cipher) of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566)  |  ca. 1555; Ottoman  |  Turkey (Istanbul)  |  Ink, opaque watercolors, and gold on paper  |  Rogers Fund, 1938 (38.149.1)
    12761024
  • Letter Rack  |  ca. 1910–20  |  Louis Comfort Tiffany (American); Tiffany Studios  |  Favrile glass, bronze  |  Gift of Mrs. H. S. Mesick, 1962 (62.233.13)
    1280856
  • Letter Rack  |  ca. 1910–20  |  Louis Comfort Tiffany (American); Tiffany Studios  |  Favrile glass, bronze  |  Gift of Mrs. H. S. Mesick, 1962 (62.233.13)
    1280917
  • Writing desk (bureau brisé)  |  ca. 1685  |  Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt (Dutch, active France), maker; Jean Bérain (French), engraver  |  France (Paris)  |  Oak, pine, and walnut veneered with ebony, rosewood, and marquetry of engraved brass on tortoiseshell; gilt bronze, steel  |  Gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1986 (1986.365.3)
    11921024
  • Writing desk (bureau brisé)  |  ca. 1685  |  Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt (Dutch, active France), maker; Jean Bérain (French), engraver  |  France (Paris)  |  Oak, pine, and walnut veneered with ebony, rosewood, and marquetry of engraved brass on tortoiseshell; gilt bronze, steel  |  Gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1986 (1986.365.3)
    12221024
  • Writing desk (bureau brisé)  |  ca. 1685  |  Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt (Dutch, active France), maker; Jean Bérain (French), engraver  |  France (Paris)  |  Oak, pine, and walnut veneered with ebony, rosewood, and marquetry of engraved brass on tortoiseshell; gilt bronze, steel  |  Gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1986 (1986.365.3)
    9481024
  • Writing desk (bureau brisé)  |  ca. 1685  |  Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt (Dutch, active France), maker; Jean Bérain (French), engraver  |  France (Paris)  |  Oak, pine, and walnut veneered with ebony, rosewood, and marquetry of engraved brass on tortoiseshell; gilt bronze, steel  |  Gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1986 (1986.365.3)
    12141024
  • Writing desk (bureau brisé)  |  ca. 1685  |  Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt (Dutch, active France), maker; Jean Bérain (French), engraver  |  France (Paris)  |  Oak, pine, and walnut veneered with ebony, rosewood, and marquetry of engraved brass on tortoiseshell; gilt bronze, steel  |  Gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1986 (1986.365.3)
    11681024
  • Mechanical game table  |  ca. 1780–83  |  David Roentgen (German)  |  Germany; Neuwied  |  Partially stained oak, mahogany, maple, and fruitwood, felt, partially tooled and gilded leather, iron and steel fittings, brass  |  Pfeiffer Fund, 2007 (2007.42.1,2)
    1280960
  • Mechanical game table  |  ca. 1780–83  |  David Roentgen (German)  |  Germany; Neuwied  |  Partially stained oak, mahogany, maple, and fruitwood, felt, partially tooled and gilded leather, iron and steel fittings, brass  |  Pfeiffer Fund, 2007 (2007.42.1,2)
    10331024
  • Case (étui) with an amorous inscription  |  1450–1500  |  Italy  |  Leather (cuir bouilli) over a wooden core, red cord  |  Inscribed: A BONA FEDE TE AMO DEL BON [CUORE]  |  Rogers Fund, 1950 (50.53.1)
    1280698
  • Curiosity  |  ca. 1660  |  Gerard ter Borch (Dutch)  |  Oil on canvas  |  The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 (49.7.38)
    8311024
  • Curiosity  |  ca. 1660  |  Gerard ter Borch (Dutch)  |  Oil on canvas  |  The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 (49.7.38)
    10631024
  • James Monroe  |  ca. 1820–22  |  Gilbert Stuart (American)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Bequest of Seth Low, 1916 (29.89)
    8221024
  • Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and His Wife (Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836)  |  1788  |  Jacques-Louis David (French)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, in honor of Everett Fahy, 1977 (1977.10)
    7611024
  • Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and His Wife (Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836)  |  1788  |  Jacques-Louis David (French)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, in honor of Everett Fahy, 1977 (1977.10)
    1060756
  • The Letter  |  1746  |  Pietro Longhi (Pietro Falca) (Italian, Venetian)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Frederick C. Hewitt Fund, 1912 (14.32.1)
    8241024
  • The Love Letter  |  ca. 1770  |  Jean-Honorè Fragonard (French)  |  Oil on canvas  |  The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 (49.7.49)
    792927
  • The Letter  |  ca. 1865  |  Camille Corot (French)  |  Oil on wood  |  H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Gift of Horace Havemeyer, 1929 (29.160.33)
    6861024
  • The Letter  |  ca. 1865  |  Camille Corot (French)  |  Oil on wood  |  H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Gift of Horace Havemeyer, 1929 (29.160.33)
    1280940
  • Ashley Williams
    1280852
  • My name is Ashley Williams. I work for the Museum's Director, Tom Campbell. I'm going to be talking about "Letters."

  • Letter writing is somewhat forgotten these days because of email and Blackberry and the ease of communication now.

  • I went to boarding school in England but I grew up in France, and so a lot of the communication with my family, with my friends

  • was done through letters. The only time we actually had email was in my last years; up until that point everything had been done by hand.

  • Penmanship is taken incredibly seriously over there. You actually learn how to write with a fountain pen, which is really hard when you're five or six.

  • Mine used to be beautiful and now it's getting very scrawly. I like the cuneiform tablets because something that was actually a fairly mundane document has become a part of our collection as a work of art.

  • The signature of Süleyman the Magnificent, just to think of taking such care over the calligraphy of how your name is represented. Now you have an email signature and it's just something terribly bland. I mean mine is anyway. So

  • when I was younger I was a big collector of pens and all that sort of thing. There's a slight nostalgia about it

  • all. You know, things used to be made so beautifully.

  • Writing desks that were specifically made for that reason

  • or for a certain person.

  • Monograms and all sorts of things worked into the writing desk, and you can just imagine Louis XIV

  • barking out orders and writing letters. Most people

  • have Ikea furniture and you know, things that are a bit less visually appealing.

  • This mechanical table, if you close it up completely, it's a table or a writing desk.

  • And then you open up one layer and it becomes a games table or a card table. In

  • fifteenth and sixteenth century Italy there were a lot of betrothal chests, which had all kinds of things in them, including tokens of love and those could take the form of these little cases with writing tools inside them. I like the idea of something being portable, you know I mean I think there's always a sense of, at any moment you could want to jot something down, whether that's some information that you need to give someone or whether it's to write a note to a friend or to a loved one.

  • There is a kind of secrecy about letter writing. You're writing a story to a certain person, and you don't necessarily want to share it with someone else.

  • I like the aspect of someone trying to snoop over her shoulder as she's writing.

  • There are these terribly serious portraits of men at their desks writing letters, presidential portraits. Real gravitas there. But

  • then you have others where women are sort of part of the scene as well but they're obviously a real distraction.

  • Not really welcome in the environment of business letters.

  • Paintings can convey the narrative of a letter. The painter is obviously trying to express emotion.

  • They can bring such wonderful news and it's a joyful thing, but I think also there'll always be

  • letters of sort of disappointment. I have a couple of people that I pretty much only keep in touch with via

  • letter. I sort of reluctantly email them. I very much rather write them a letter than email. That's just how we keep in touch, I think by force of habit, 'cause that's just how we

  • used to when we were younger.

  • 16.2.9
    The Letter, 1890–91, Mary Cassatt (American), Drypoint and aquatint, printed in color from three plates; fourth state of four Gift of Paul J. Sachs, 1916 (16.2.9)
  • 49.7.49
    The Love Letter, ca. 1770, Jean-Honorè Fragonard (French), Oil on canvas The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 (49.7.49)
  • 1979.395
    Elijah Boardman, 1789, Ralph Earl (American), Oil on canvas Bequest of Susan W. Tyler, 1979 (1979.395)
  • 29.100.43
    Sulking, ca. 1870, Edgar Degas (French), Oil on canvas H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.43)
  • 66.245.8
    Cuneiform tablet: private letter, Middle Bronze Age–Old Assyrian Trading Colony, ca. 20th–19th century b.c., Anatolia, probably from Kültepe (Karum Kanesh), Clay Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Klejman, 1966 (66.245.8)
  • 38.149.1
    Tughra (Imperial Cipher) of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566), ca. 1555; Ottoman, Turkey (Istanbul), Ink, opaque watercolors, and gold on paper Rogers Fund, 1938 (38.149.1)
  • 62.233.13
    Letter Rack, ca. 1910–20, Louis Comfort Tiffany (American); Tiffany Studios, Favrile glass, bronze Gift of Mrs. H. S. Mesick, 1962 (62.233.13)
  • 1986.365.3
    Writing desk (bureau brisé), ca. 1685, Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt (Dutch, active France), maker; Jean Bérain (French), engraver, France (Paris), Oak, pine, and walnut veneered with ebony, rosewood, and marquetry of engraved brass on tortoiseshell; gilt bronze, steel Gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1986 (1986.365.3)
  • 2007.42.1,2
    Mechanical game table, ca. 1780–83, David Roentgen (German), Germany; Neuwied, Partially stained oak, mahogany, maple, and fruitwood, felt, partially tooled and gilded leather, iron and steel fittings, brass Pfeiffer Fund, 2007 (2007.42.1,2)
  • 50.53.1
    Case (étui) with an amorous inscription, 1450–1500, Italy, Leather (cuir bouilli) over a wooden core, red cord, Inscribed: A BONA FEDE TE AMO DEL BON [CUORE] Rogers Fund, 1950 (50.53.1)
  • 49.7.38
    Curiosity, ca. 1660, Gerard ter Borch (Dutch), Oil on canvas The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 (49.7.38)
  • 29.89
    James Monroe, ca. 1820–22, Gilbert Stuart (American), Oil on canvas Bequest of Seth Low, 1916 (29.89)
  • 1977.10
    Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and His Wife (Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836), 1788, Jacques-Louis David (French), Oil on canvas Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, in honor of Everett Fahy, 1977 (1977.10)
  • 14.32.1
    The Letter, 1746, Pietro Longhi (Pietro Falca) (Italian, Venetian), Oil on canvas Frederick C. Hewitt Fund, 1912 (14.32.1)
  • 29.160.33
    The Letter, ca. 1865, Camille Corot (French), Oil on wood H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Gift of Horace Havemeyer, 1929 (29.160.33)
  • The Letter, 1890–91, Mary Cassatt (American), Drypoint and aquatint, printed in color from three plates; fourth state of four Gift of Paul J. Sachs, 1916 (16.2.9)
    The Love Letter, ca. 1770, Jean-Honorè Fragonard (French), Oil on canvas The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 (49.7.49)
    Elijah Boardman, 1789, Ralph Earl (American), Oil on canvas Bequest of Susan W. Tyler, 1979 (1979.395)
    Sulking, ca. 1870, Edgar Degas (French), Oil on canvas H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.43)
    Cuneiform tablet: private letter, Middle Bronze Age–Old Assyrian Trading Colony, ca. 20th–19th century b.c., Anatolia, probably from Kültepe (Karum Kanesh), Clay Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Klejman, 1966 (66.245.8)
    Tughra (Imperial Cipher) of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566), ca. 1555; Ottoman, Turkey (Istanbul), Ink, opaque watercolors, and gold on paper Rogers Fund, 1938 (38.149.1)
    Letter Rack, ca. 1910–20, Louis Comfort Tiffany (American); Tiffany Studios, Favrile glass, bronze Gift of Mrs. H. S. Mesick, 1962 (62.233.13)
    Writing desk (bureau brisé), ca. 1685, Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt (Dutch, active France), maker; Jean Bérain (French), engraver, France (Paris), Oak, pine, and walnut veneered with ebony, rosewood, and marquetry of engraved brass on tortoiseshell; gilt bronze, steel Gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1986 (1986.365.3)
    Mechanical game table, ca. 1780–83, David Roentgen (German), Germany; Neuwied, Partially stained oak, mahogany, maple, and fruitwood, felt, partially tooled and gilded leather, iron and steel fittings, brass Pfeiffer Fund, 2007 (2007.42.1,2)
    Case (étui) with an amorous inscription, 1450–1500, Italy, Leather (cuir bouilli) over a wooden core, red cord, Inscribed: A BONA FEDE TE AMO DEL BON [CUORE] Rogers Fund, 1950 (50.53.1)
    Curiosity, ca. 1660, Gerard ter Borch (Dutch), Oil on canvas The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 (49.7.38)
    James Monroe, ca. 1820–22, Gilbert Stuart (American), Oil on canvas Bequest of Seth Low, 1916 (29.89)
    Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and His Wife (Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836), 1788, Jacques-Louis David (French), Oil on canvas Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, in honor of Everett Fahy, 1977 (1977.10)
    The Letter, 1746, Pietro Longhi (Pietro Falca) (Italian, Venetian), Oil on canvas Frederick C. Hewitt Fund, 1912 (14.32.1)
    The Letter, ca. 1865, Camille Corot (French), Oil on wood H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Gift of Horace Havemeyer, 1929 (29.160.33)
    8000–2000 B.C.
    2000–1000 B.C.
    1000 B.C.–1 A.D.
    1–500 A.D.
    500–1000 A.D.
    1000–1400 A.D.
    1400–1600 A.D.
    1600–1800 A.D.
    1800–1900 A.D.
    1900–Present

    Works of art in order of appearance

    Last Updated: August 19, 2013. Not all works of art in the Museum's collection may be on view on a particular day. For the most accurate location information, please check this page on the day of your visit.

    The Letter
    1890–91
    Mary Cassatt (American)
    Drypoint and aquatint, printed in color from three plates; fourth state of four
    Gift of Paul J. Sachs, 1916 (16.2.9)
    Not on view
    Drawings and PrintsSecond Floor
    The Love Letter
    ca. 1770
    Jean-Honorè Fragonard (French)
    Oil on canvas
    The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 (49.7.49)
    On view: Gallery 615
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    Elijah Boardman
    1789
    Ralph Earl (American)
    Oil on canvas
    Bequest of Susan W. Tyler, 1979 (1979.395)
    On view: Gallery 755
    American Paintings and SculptureFirst and Second Floors
    Sulking
    ca. 1870
    Edgar Degas (French)
    Oil on canvas
    H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.43)
    Not on view
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    Cuneiform tablet: private letter
    Middle Bronze Age–Old Assyrian Trading Colony, ca. 20th–19th century b.c.
    Anatolia, probably from Kültepe (Karum Kanesh)
    Clay
    Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Klejman, 1966 (66.245.8)
    On view: Gallery 406
    Ancient Near Eastern ArtSecond Floor
    Tughra (Imperial Cipher) of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566)
    ca. 1555; Ottoman
    Turkey (Istanbul)
    Ink, opaque watercolors, and gold on paper
    Rogers Fund, 1938 (38.149.1)
    On view: Gallery 460
    Islamic ArtSecond Floor
    Letter Rack
    ca. 1910–20
    Louis Comfort Tiffany (American); Tiffany Studios
    Favrile glass, bronze
    Gift of Mrs. H. S. Mesick, 1962 (62.233.13)
    On view: Gallery 774
    American Decorative ArtsFirst and Second Floors
    Writing desk (bureau brisé)
    ca. 1685
    Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt (Dutch, active France), maker; Jean Bérain (French), engraver
    France (Paris)
    Oak, pine, and walnut veneered with ebony, rosewood, and marquetry of engraved brass on tortoiseshell; gilt bronze, steel
    Gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1986 (1986.365.3)
    On view: Gallery 531
    European Sculpture and Decorative ArtsFirst Floor
    Mechanical game table
    ca. 1780–83
    David Roentgen (German)
    Germany; Neuwied
    Partially stained oak, mahogany, maple, and fruitwood, felt, partially tooled and gilded leather, iron and steel fittings, brass
    Pfeiffer Fund, 2007 (2007.42.1,2)
    On view: Gallery 547
    European Sculpture and Decorative ArtsFirst Floor
    Case (étui) with an amorous inscription
    1450–1500
    Italy
    Leather (cuir bouilli) over a wooden core, red cord
    Inscribed: A BONA FEDE TE AMO DEL BON [CUORE]
    Rogers Fund, 1950 (50.53.1)
    On view: Gallery 307
    Medieval Art and The CloistersFirst Floor
    Curiosity
    ca. 1660
    Gerard ter Borch (Dutch)
    Oil on canvas
    The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 (49.7.38)
    On view: Gallery 632
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    James Monroe
    ca. 1820–22
    Gilbert Stuart (American)
    Oil on canvas
    Bequest of Seth Low, 1916 (29.89)
    Not on view
    American Paintings and SculptureFirst and Second Floors
    Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and His Wife (Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836)
    1788
    Jacques-Louis David (French)
    Oil on canvas
    Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, in honor of Everett Fahy, 1977 (1977.10)
    On view: Gallery 614
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    The Letter
    1746
    Pietro Longhi (Pietro Falca) (Italian, Venetian)
    Oil on canvas
    Frederick C. Hewitt Fund, 1912 (14.32.1)
    On view: Gallery 619
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    The Letter
    ca. 1865
    Camille Corot (French)
    Oil on wood
    H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Gift of Horace Havemeyer, 1929 (29.160.33)
    On view: Gallery 803
    European PaintingsSecond Floor

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