Please Mr. Postman: personal correspondence in art through the centuries
Handwritten letters remain one of the most deeply personal modes of communication. When represented in art, letters provide a window into the inner life of the reader or sender. Whether declarations of love or news from afar, these letters make us want to sneak a peek!
1. Euryalus Sends His First Letter to Lucretia, artist unknown, 1460 - 1470
This 15th century French parchment tells a scandalous story. Lucretia, a beautiful married woman from Sienna, receives a love letter from Euryalus via an intermediary. Pretending to be offended by the messenger (who has a naughty reputation), Lucretia tears the letter to pieces—but just as quickly gathers and saves them.
2. The Love Letter by Johannes Vermeer, circa 1669.
In this painting by Vermeer, a maid interrupts her mistress to hand her a letter. Who is it from? Several visual clues suggest that it’s a love letter: the mistress plays a cittern, considered a symbol of love in 17th-century Netherlands. Behind her, a seascape hints at the beloved letter-writer, far away.
3. Man reading a letter to a woman by Pieter de Hooch, 1674 – 1676.
In this 17th-century tableau by Dutch genre painter Pieter de Hooch, a woman is enchanted by the letter read to her by a male companion. The needlework on the woman’s lap reinforces the scene’s calm domesticity. Could the letter be news from family abroad?
4. Lady writing a love letter, artist unknown. 1700 AD - 1800 AD.
In this 18th-century Indian Khangra painting, a woman writes a letter to her lover as a female attendant watches. Paintings from the Khangra school focused on human emotion—often romantic love. Other features include natural settings and soft, graceful lines. What do you think this woman is telling her beloved? Is she relaxed, or in a hurry? Or perhaps this a secret romance?
5. Courtesan reading a letter, by Suzuki Harunobu. Mid 18th-century.
Suzuki Harunobu was an 18th-century Japanese artist famous for his innovative full-color woodblock prints, called nishiki-e. His visual representations of love (like this one of a courtesan reading a letter) range from the lyrical and sentimental to the erotic.
6. The Morning of St Valentine, John Callcott Horsley, 1865
In this oil painting by 19th-century British artist John Callcott Horsley, a young woman peruses a packet of Valentine’s Day vows. Behind her, a boy delivers more letters for the Victorian beauty. Fun fact: Horsley gave us one of the world’s most popular forms of letter—the Christmas card!
7. Comtesse de Cérès, by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun. 1784
Anne Marie Thérèse de Rabaudy Montoussin (1759-1834) was the Countess of Cérès. In this 18th-century painting by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun, the fashionably-dressed young woman has just finished writing a letter. The fact that the Countess is shown in the act of writing—not passively reading—sets this painting, by one of the world’s most important female artists, apart from other portraits of the time.
8. The Letter, by Mary Cassatt,1890-1891.
In this late-19th-century work by American artist Mary Cassatt, a woman seals a letter that she has just written. Cassatt combines the dress and objects of contemporary Western life with the stylistic influence of traditional Japanese printmaking.
9. The Letter or The Spanish Conversation, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, about 1778
Ooh la la, whats going on here? In this ink and watercolor work by 18th-century French painter Fragonard, a man, dressed in the so-called “Spanish” style of the day, is about to give his female companion a letter. Is this a declaration of love?
10. The Night Letter, by Eldzier Cortor, 1938.
Eldzier Cortor was a central figure in the Black Chicago Renaissance movement of the 1930s-1950s. His work focused on black experience, often featuring scenes of daily life in urban black communities. In this 1938 oil painting, a young girl appears upset by the contents of the letter on the table. The older woman in front of her holds a Bible—is she seeking reassurance?
The desire to communicate is as old as humanity itself. In early portraiture, letters highlighted the intelligence of the letter-writer or reader. In the 17th century, Dutch artists like Vermeer and de Hooch used the intimacy and mystery of the letter to crank up the intrigue of their quiet scenes. But whatever the period, artists have long appreciated the symbolism of the handwritten letter. Ironically, it is often through the written word that these visual artists bring us closer to their subjects.