Grandma Moses reconsidered

The self-taught painter so beloved 50 years ago, and so out of fashion since then, may be in for a re-evaluation.


April 01, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

In 1940, when Anna Mary Robertson Moses was 80 years old, a New York art dealer happened to see some pictures she had submitted to a "women's exchange" in Hoosick Falls, a tiny, upstate farming community.

Otto Kallir, who knew collectors who were interested in buying so-called primitive American art -- works by untrained artists that reflected the folk tradition -- decided to give the unknown painter a show in his gallery.

Modestly titled "What a Farmwife Painted," the exhibition opened in October of that year, but initially attracted little notice. It was only later, after a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune learned that the artist's family and neighbors often referred to her as "Grandma Moses," that the life and work of the unassuming farm wife began to take on legendary proportions.

"Grandma Moses in the 21st Century," at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, chronicles the extraordinary career of a woman who, at an age when most artists are ready to lay down their brushes, burst onto the scene as one of America's most beloved painters and who -- even more amazingly -- managed to maintain that preeminence throughout 20 years of constant creative growth and development.

As curator Jane Kallir, the granddaughter of the man who gave Moses her first show, notes in an accompanying text, Moses was one of America's first artistic superstars.

By the time of her death in 1961, at age 101, she had been featured on the covers of national magazines, in films and on television, and her work had been reproduced on millions of holiday greeting cards. Her late-blooming career provided an inspiration to a generation of Americans as an example of productive employment of one's later years.

Many regarded her as the quintessential American artist, a painter whose pictures grew out of the nation's core values of hard work, family and community and whose message of hope and optimism provided a welcome balm for the frightful anxieties of the Cold War and the nuclear age.

And at a time when modernism in the United States was still struggling to free itself from its European origins, Moses' art was seen as the natural expression of a cultural tradition that was as American as apple pie.

How an untutored farm wife who spent virtually her entire life in rural isolation came for a time to epitomize the values and aspirations of the most technologically advanced, militarily powerful nation in history is a fascinating story that involves the confluence of art-world fashion and diplomatic Realpolitik, of the clash between democratic and elitist ideals, and of Americans' longing for a national identity of which they can be proud.

Robertson was born Sept. 7, 1860, on a farm in Greenwich in upstate New York, one of 10 children. As a girl she learned to cook, sew and bake as well as do such farm chores as soap- and candle-making.

By the age of 12 she was working as a hired girl on a neighboring farm, where she performed such work for the next 15 years. In 1887, she married Thomas Salmon Moses, who also made his living as a hired man.

After the wedding, the couple moved to Virginia and took up farming there. Over the next 20 years they had 10 children, only five of whom survived. In 1905, the family moved back to New York, where they settled in Eagle Bridge, not far from Greenwich, on a dairy farm they had purchased.

Thomas Moses died in 1927, and for a while afterward his widow lived with their daughter in Bennington. But she returned to the farm at Eagle Bridge in 1935, where she would live for the rest of her life.

Although she had drawn occasionally during her childhood, Moses did not begin painting seriously until she was in her 70s. Her earliest pictures, which date from the 1930s, were woven from brightly colored yarns and drew on her skills in sewing and embroidery.

The onset of arthritis, however, made sewing and embroidery painful. A sister suggested that she try painting instead.

Using oil paint on wood panels, Moses created hundreds of colorful pictures that expressed scenes and incidents from her own life as reflected through a highly inventive and idiosyncratic vision.

After her gallery show, Moses' paintings were exhibited at Gimbel's department store in New York, where they demonstrated a powerful mass-market appeal that transcended the art-world circles that first brought her prominence.

By the mid-1940s, Moses' ingeniously composed scenes like "The Old Checkered House" and "The Quilting Bee" were being reproduced on cards and calendars. Within a few years, she had become an American icon.

Moses' phenomenal success was only partly due to the charming naivete of her paintings. More important, perhaps, was that she appeared in the right place at the right time.

Her work belongs to a long tradition of European and American folk artists that includes such figures as Henry Rousseau and Horace Pippin -- none of whom, however, achieved her celebrity.

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