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Thematic Essay | Letter Writing

In Dreams, Ideas and Passion

By Anna Johnson
November 28, 2008
Color, myth and dream, woven into music, painting, jewelry, and letters that convey something of the dramatic elegance and everyday character of the times. 
Sketch by van Gogh
A Sketch by van Gogh, to his brother Theo.

In the fin de siecle of the 19th century, letter writing mirrored the devotion to nature, music and art.

pour moi, poets and courtesans, made their thoughts clear inside the folds of pleasantly perfumed, subtly pigmented, handmade paper.

The letters indulged in at the Moulin Rouge, fussed over hats, automobiles, bijoux de costume, roses on a windowsill, London theatre, and ragtime.

For poets such as Thomas Hardy and Jane Francisca Wilde, letters were an exploration in dreams, ideas and passion. Indeed, you did not have to be famous to write a good letter.

During it was the fashion to carry silk-bound letter cases and pearl in-lay fountain pens to compose graceful, unstructured landscapes of feeling.

As a reaction to academia, the vogue was to write outdoors, while sitting at along Boulevard Montmartre, or contemplating in the flower garden.

The free spirited Impressionists portrayed farm girls, servants, shepherdesses, mothers, and daughters, dancing, cooking, brushing their hair, sewing, picking flowers, and writing letters.

Industrial advances in the production of steel, oil, and electricity, created the need for engineers and architects, as well as a stylish, vibrant working class; 45 million people migrated toward the industrial cities of Europe and America, and for many, letter writing was essential to keep in touch.

Letters written in 1895 could take weeks to arrive; hand written, often poignant, were cherished, kept for years, and read over again. A letter could hold as much originality of spirit as any other art form, and letters written by simple, hard working people were intense, sincere, and at times expressed a lovely candor.

In addition to affluence, the Industrial Age had brought ecological ruin and to civilized man. This dark side of progress, along with the idea that humans were inextricably a part of nature, as Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, cultivated a passion for naturalism.

Color, myth and dream, were woven into music, painting, jewelry, sculpture, furniture, dance, fashion, architecture, textile design, and literature.

The letters of fin de siecle reflect this passion pour la nature, and convey something of the dramatic elegance and everyday character of the times.

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