Do Artists Have Good Handwriting?

Abigail Cain
Mar 26, 2019 9:38PM

Letter from Michaelangelo Buonarroti to his father, June 1508. Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images.

“Don’t write me any more,” a 75-year-old Michelangelo wrote to his nephew Lionardo Buonarroti in the spring of 1549. “Every time I get a letter from you, I’m thrown into a fever, such a struggle do I have to read it.” It wasn’t the only time he berated the man for his sloppy penmanship, which the artist thought reflected poorly on the family.

Michelangelo himself had taken great pains to cultivate his own elegant handwriting. In his early twenties, he re-trained himself to write in the graceful cursive used by the humanists, rather than the Gothic merchants’ script he’d been taught in school. Handwriting, he believed, was a vital step in branding himself as an “aristocrat among artists,” noted Deborah Parker in her 2010 book Michelangelo and the Art of Letter Writing.

Michelangelo sketches a marble order for his first major architectural commission. Michelangelo Buonarroti, pen and ink drawing with autograph instructions for a marble order for the facade of San Lorenzo, 1518. © TASCHEN.


For Michelangelo, “good” handwriting represented a conscious, deliberate decision that required years of practice. But could there be a more innate connection between an artist’s work and their handwriting, as well?

This was the question at the heart of Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, an anthology published in 2016 and edited by Smithsonian curator Mary Savig. The catalyst for the project, Savig explained, was a staff meeting in which another curator identified Ad Reinhardt’s distinctive calligraphic handwriting from across the room. “So we started talking about these examples when artists seem to have this signature handwriting that is expressive of their artistic idiom,” Savig said. “And we just thought, ‘Can we say that for all artists? If you look at someone’s handwriting, does it look like their work of art? Or does it surprise you?’”

The answer was, in short, both. Some artists’ handwriting revealed a clear connection with the work they made. Georgia O’Keeffe, for instance, often replaced periods in her correspondence with small, squiggly lines—marks that also appear in her paintings and drawings. More generally, Savig noted, her handwriting “is very evocative, very bold, like her paintings. Both are very modern.”

Seurat and Signac plan the 1889 exhibition of the Indépendants: will it be “a flop”? Georges Seurat, autograph letter signed, to Paul Signac, on a lettercard, postmarked Paris, 20 April 1889. © TASCHEN.

Sometimes, however, surface-level similarities break down upon further inspection. Jackson Pollock’s sloppy handwriting seems to be a fitting visual parallel to his AbEx drip paintings. But his messy hand likely had more to do with biographical details than a pioneering artistic style: Pollock moved frequently as a child and never finished high school, an uneven education that made it difficult to develop his penmanship.

The breadth of artist handwriting is perhaps best illustrated by a pair of Minimalist sculptors, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre. Andre’s correspondence is often written entirely in uppercase (except for his signature, which is all lowercase), in neat, grid-like formations. “It just has this simplicity to it,” Savig said. “Also, most of his letters are not very long. They’re usually on postcards, from what I’ve seen. So you look at that and think, ‘Okay, that’s minimal right there.’”

Two months before his suicide, van Gogh lists the furniture from the bedroom at Arles that he immortalized in oil. Vincent van Gogh, autograph letter signed, to Joseph Ginoux, ca. 12 May 1890. © TASCHEN.

You might assume, Savig continued, that Flavin’s handwriting “would also be very minimal and pared-down. But it’s totally the opposite.” Flavin was a Hudson River School enthusiast who studied 19th-century handwriting so he could emulate its flamboyant curves and flourishes in his own correspondence.

I asked Savig about more sweeping trends: Do artists, who often draw and paint with a steady hand, tend to have better handwriting than most? Some do boast beautiful penmanship, she replied. Maxfield Parrish, for instance, has “really neat, stylized, crisp handwriting,” Savig said. Thomas Eakins, whose father was a professional handwriting instructor, was practically born into beautiful penmanship. But for every Aikens or Parrish, Savig continued, there’s a Pollock—or a John Singer Sargent, whose handwriting has been notoriously difficult for scholars to decipher over the centuries.

When working on Pen to Paper, Savig said, she considered ordering the letters chronologically. “But it doesn’t look like there’s any sort of progression or regression,” she said. “It just looks like a million different kinds of handwriting.” (There was one exception to Savig’s rule: architects. Since they were all trained in architectural lettering for use on blueprints, architects’ mature correspondence tends to have “a lot of consistency,” she noted.)

The Magic of Handwriting, a 2018 book showcasing the Brazilian curator, author, and publisher Pedro Corrêa do Lago’s world-class collection of letters, offers similar evidence on an international scale. Georges Seurat’s scrawling French script slopes precariously upwards on a letter to Paul Signac from April 1889, while one of Salvador Dalí’s postcards to René Magritte could comfortably be labeled “chicken scratch.” Magritte, on the other hand, wrote in an impeccable cursive that the Museum of Modern Art even transformed into a font. Vincent van Gogh was not quite as scrupulous as the Belgian Surrealist, but each line of an 1890 letter cataloguing his bedroom furniture in Arles is ramrod-straight.

This also appears to hold true for a more contemporary slate of artists. Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Instagram is chock-full of Post-It notes penned by artists, collected for an ongoing project called “The Art of Handwriting.” The range of handwriting is vast, and only a few are enviably neat.

What’s more, the idea of “good” handwriting is a moving target that’s changed over the centuries. “It’s one of the few things that most Americans who are alive can remember learning, but it’s not always been taught the same,” Savig explained. “Different ideals have ebbed and flowed over time.” The second half of the 19th century was dominated by Platt Rogers Spencer’s sinuous cursive. Handwriting was indicative of your moral character, or so the thinking went. In the 20th century, Austin Norman Palmer updated cursive for the industrial age. He simplified the characters, emphasizing speed and muscle memory over artful flourishes. (Andy Warhol cultivated a Palmer script.)

“But every time there is a standard, people break it,” Savig said. “That’s why handwriting is so interesting. In the midst of all these ways that primary school has tried to get us to have consistency and legibility, everybody has such distinct handwriting at the end of the day.”

Abigail Cain