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Digitized Artist Letters Reveal Maxfield Parrish’s Self-Doubt (and More)

letter written by maxfield parrish

We visit museums to experience vivid art expressions from some of the most creative minds of the past, present, and future. But as someone who loves to read and write, I’ve always been interested in the personal stories and lives of the artists who brought these paintings to life. I find myself wondering about their relationships, their hometowns, their daily lives, and their creative process. What led them to the moment where brush met canvas? More specifically, where did their passion originate and who or what inspired it? Letters and manuscripts help answer these questions, and we are fortunate to have a collection of these at Crystal Bridges: 2,857 letters from 459 different artists, in fact.

The Artist Letters and Manuscripts collection at Crystal Bridges Library and Archives was recently digitized and is now available to view through our Library page. Users can now access all digital scans of letters written by various influential artists. Items in the collection were largely amassed between 2005 and 2007, however, the museum continues to add new material. When available, information regarding provenance accompanies the finding-aid entries.

Some notable artists in this collection include Winslow Homer, George Bellows, Albert Bierstadt, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, Maxfield Parrish, John Singer Sargent, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, Alfred Stieglitz, James McNeil Whistler, Gilbert Stuart, and Augustus Saint Gaudens.

Reading personal artist letters is like getting an intimate snapshot into artists’ everyday lives. In the case of artists like Maxfield Parrish, his penmanship was truly an art form in and of itself. We can see that his artistic diligence is evident not only in his paintings but also in his correspondence written from his home in Windsor, Vermont.

letter written by maxfield parrish
Maxfield Parrish to Mrs. Akins, July 1, 1919, Artists' Letters and Manuscript Collection, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

These letters teach us that some of the greatest artists in history resonated with the things we experience, too.

In one of Parrish’s letters (as seen above) he questions his work as an artist, writing,

“I’ve been going through a dreadful time of late with my own work: realizing how superficial and small it all has been in the past, and just how I feel I am the last one to give you advice.” (Maxfield Parrish to Mrs. Akins, July 1, 1919, Artists’ Letters and Manuscript Collection, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.)

These notes remind us of the artist’s humanity—their self-doubt and struggles, the ones we don’t always recognize on the canvas or comprehend in our gallery walks. I’ve found that seeing Parrish’s work carries greater significance when I understand the journey that led him to paint those glowing, yellow lanterns in front of a deep, blue sky (as seen in The Lantern Bearers).

For questions regarding reproductions, citations, or requesting higher resolution scans please email


Written by Kariah Brust, reference assistant, Crystal Bridges Library.