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Biographies are about the whole person, not just the work

I recently spoke with a friend of the artist Nell Blaine, whose biography I wrote. Kindly loaned to me, the friend's letters from Nell had offered a valuable indication of her temperament and the stresses of her daily life at that time. The friend, whom I will call C., mentioned that she had come across additional letters from Nell. Although this cache was discovered too late to help me write my book, I suggested that she might donate the letters to one of Nell's archives, at Harvard and the Archives of American Art.


C., who is herself an artist, said that she didn't see the point of doing that, because the letters are not about Nell's art. I tried to explain that a letter doesn't need to be about a subject's work to be valuable. As a biographer, I know that there is so much more to be fathomed from the correspondence and journals of a creative person than simply how the work was conceived and made. Biographies (as opposed to critical studies) are necessarily about the whole person, not only about the nature of their accomplishments. Any piece of reliable information about the person's life — including her expectations, disappointments, worries, loves, jealousies, prejudices, political views, and financial affairs — is important when you are trying to deduce the complex network of forces that led her to produce a particular body of work while dealing with the rest of her life. But C. was adament; she would probably throw out all of this correspondence.


I suppose there will always be a huge gap between people (including many academics) who want to learn only about the work and those who also wonder about the inner life of the person who made it.


© Cathy Curtis 2023

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