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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.

It is a joy to read again Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo –“...we explored the old garden and stole excellent figs, it made me think of Zola’s vines, ivy, fig trees, olive trees, pomegranates with flowers of the brightest orange...”

The letters are a canvas of color and metaphor, and possess the extraordinary power of Van Gogh’s paintings.

Mary Cassat, an Impressionist, whose rich color transparences created opulent shades of depth and light, indulged in gossip about her friend Paul –“...Cezanne prefaces every remark with pour moi...” In the spirit of l’art pour l’art, poets and courtesans, made their thoughts clear inside the folds of pleasantly perfumed, subtly pigmented, handmade paper.

The letters indulged in débauche artistique 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 La Belle Époque 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 cafés de vin 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.

The shepherd, sitting beside a fire in the Lefka Ori Mountains of Crete, wrote to his sweetheart who had gone to Paris to work as an ouvrière couturier –“...I’ll bathe you in fragrant herbs and horse’s milk, and give you a fine black-haired goat skin and a strand of red beads...στην προσδοκία του φωτός από τα μάτια σας... in the anticipation of light in your eyes...” –the writer goes on to describe his love in the most intricate detail.

In addition to affluence, the Industrial Age had brought ecological ruin and inquiétude moderne 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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