Thursday, September 7, 2017

Never Too Late for Art—Grandma Moses

Grandma Moses and a winter scene from her 1955 appearance on Edward R. Murrow's See It Now.

Anna Mary Robertson was born on September 7, in Greenwich, Washington County, New York, a rural community east of the Hudson River and not far from the Green Mountains of Vermont in 1860.  She was the third of ten children of a farmer and flax miller.  She was rudimentaly educated in a one room school house where she was first exposed to drawing and experimented with paints she created from berry juices, red clay, and natural herbal dyes.  By the age of 12 she was put out as a chore girl and household help to a wealthier family—the beginning of decades of hard toil as a domestic, hired farm help, and then hardscrabble farmer’s wife and mother.  In her spare time she supplemented her family’s income with needlework—pictorial embroidery and quilting—which she sold to neighbors for pittance and pin money.  It was not until she was 76 and arthritis had made needlework too painful that she took up painting as an alternative.  Within two years she had multiple individual exhibitions in New York City and was becoming famous as Grandma Moses.
Anna Marie Robinson age about 6.
Anna worked for several families over the next few years.  One of them, the Whitesides, kinder or at least more attentive than the others, noticed her fascination with the several Currier and Ives prints that decorated their home.  They gave their servant her first chalk, crayons, and sketch books to try her own hand at drawing.  The Currier and Ives pastoral scenes remained an inspiration for her throughout the rest of her life.
A spinster of 27, Mary met Thomas Salmon Moses, a hired man on the same farm where she worked.  They married and her new husband convinced her to relocate far from home in the lush Shenandoah Valley near the Civil War battlefield at Staughton, Virginia.  They hired out as a farm couple hoping to save money for their own place.  Despite their best efforts, it was hard to get ahead, especially as their family grew.   Anna gave birth ten times and five of the children survived infancy.  Through heartbreak and toil Anna supplemented her family income by selling the homemade potato chips she fried in a kettle and the butter she churned from her only cow’s milk.
She loved the beautiful Shenandoah country, but land there was far too rich for the family to ever afford.  Thomas looked back to New York where stone and stump farms could be purchased relatively cheaply from those who were moving on to the more productive land in the Mid West.  In 1905 they established a farm in Eagle Bridge, Renssalaer County north of Washington County.
In 1918 Anna painted, using common house paint, her earliest surviving piece, a decorative fireboard of a wooded scene with a pond.  But most of her art was in the samplers and farm life scenes she sewed in the handsome quilts she made by firelight and kerosene lantern after all of the cooking and chores were done and the children tucked in for the night.    
Anna Mary Moses and two surviving daughters.
Thomas Moses died suddenly of a heart attack at age 67 in 1927.   Anna’s son Forrest stepped in to help manage the farm as her increasing age and arthritis forced her to reduce her own physical labor. By the early 30’s she was spending more time on her needlework and selling it to neighbors and a local fairs.  About the time that she moved in with a daughter in 1936, she followed her sister’s advice and switch to painting, despite not having touched brush in nearly two decades. 
Returning to the Currier and Ives prints that had long inspired her, her first efforts were frank copies of well known images.  From the beginning Anna was self-consciously primitive eschewing the conventions of perspective for an almost pictograph approach rendered in vivid colors.  She depicted farmscapes, small towns, and landscapes in vivid colors.  She especially favored snow scenes.  Her paintings were, in her own words, old timey, recalling the rural life of her own youth.  There were no signs of modern life—no automobiles, tractors, farm equipment, paved roads, or telephone poles.
Once she started painting, nothing could stop her.  She produced canvases at an astonishing rate.  And the more she painted, the more she refined her distinctive style and began composing original scenes, not just re-interpretations of the prints she had admired.  Many were panoramic in scope.   She later told an interviewer that she would “get an inspiration and start painting; then I’ll forget everything, everything except how things used to be and how to paint it so people will know how we used to live.”
She sold the painting locally for $3 to $5 apiece depending on size.  They were locally popular and some were placed in shops around the region.  In 1938, just two years after she started painting New York art collector Louis J. Caldor spotted some on display in the window of a Hoosick Falls drug store.  He bought their entire stock at Anna’s going rate and then tracked down the artist at her daughter’s home in town where he acquired several more.  Back in the city he showed his discoveries widely in his circle of art loving friends. 
From there the painter who had sold her works as simply Mrs. Moses, experienced an astonishing meteoric rise to fame.  The next year, three Grandma Moses paintings were included in the Museum of Modern Art Contemporary Unknown American Painter show. Her first solo exhibition, What a Farm Wife Painted, October 1940 at Otto Kallir’s Galerie St. Etienne. She came to the Big Apple for meet-and-greet with the press and public the artist and an exhibition of 50 paintings at Gimbel’s Department Store was on November 15. Her display included samples of her County Fair ribbon wining baked goods and preserves.   That charmed the pants off of the press, even the sometimes snooty art critic crowd who dubbed her Grandma Moses, a name that stuck and became a brand.  Her third solo show opened in December at the Whyte Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Grandma Moses's early work like Early Spring on the Farm were evocative of Currier and Ives prints.
By 1944 she was officially represented by the Galerie St. Etienne and the American British Art Center which successfully marketed her work to folks loaded with war time boom cash and precious few consumer items available on which to spend it.  With her painting now selling for hundreds of dollars, art dealer Kallir set up Grandma Moses Properties, Inc. for her to license her work as prints, calendars, cards and notepapers, and eventually a galaxy of products from coffee mugs to fabric prints.
Norman Rockwell was Grandma Moses's friend and a neighbor just over the Vermont line.  In 1948 he included her in the welcoming crowd in this painting The Homecoming for a Saturday Evening Post Christmas cover.  Rockwell himself can be seen with the pipe.
By 1950 still active at age 90 Moses entered a decade in which she became a widely revered national cultural icon.  She had already been named as Mademoiselle magazine’s Young Woman of the Year at age 88 and was presented the National Press Club Award for Outstanding Accomplishment in Art in 1949 by President Harry S Truman himself.  Then in 1950 director Jerome Hill’s documentary profile Grandma Moses which was written and narrated by poet Archibald McLeish was nominated for an Academy Award.  In 1952 her autobiography My Life’s History was published, edited by her long time friend, supporter, and exhibitor Otto Kallir.  Three years later America got to see the aging painter on Edward R. Murrow’s See it Now documentary series on CBS.

Grandma Moses's 1952 autobiography.

Through the decade honors piled on honors.  Reproductions of her work decorated many homes and all sorts of merchandise sold briskly in department stores, gift shops, and catalogues.  Several international exhibitions were a success and the State Department sponsored good will tours of her work as part of their program to use the arts to enhance American prestige.
Grandma Moses’s success was due to the breadth of her appeal—sometime to audiences that seemed mutually antagonistic.  Conservatives responded to her nostalgia for an earlier, simple America for the same reason they were drawn at the same time to things like Currier and Ives print reproductions and the early magazine cover work of Norman Rockwell before he became overtly supportive of liberal and progressive causes.  All of it seemed like a rejection of modernity, relativism, and what they viewed as the ugly and subversive chaos of modern art.
On the other hand many liberals embraced her work as a folk expression and an authentic voice of the people.  They read stories of her life and recognized a woman who toiled, sacrificed, and often suffered and overcame those obstacles to find self-expression.  The same kinds of folks were also promoting folk music revivals and other expressions of people’s art.  A couple of decades later pioneering feminist art historians would assess her work as a breakthrough to popular acceptance by a woman artist.

At her best as in this panoramic scene of a village fair, Grandma Moses's paintings are alive with people, action, and color.
Surprisingly, Grandma Moses was even admired by much—but not all—of the arts establishment which was often hostile to work outside of anointed movements, especially Post-War abstract expressionism and other non-representative forms.  As soon as it became clear that her work was helping to create a whole new category—folk art—that did not lay claim to being fine art, they were ready to embrace it as décor.  Some critics even found that her vivid colors and sometime scattered compositions were almost abstract themselves.  Other compared her work to the peasant life and winter scenes of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, the revered 16th Century Dutch/Flemish master.
Slowing down, but not yet done, Moses turned 100 years old in 1960 and was honored by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller who proclaimed Grandma Moses Day and by a Time magazine cover story.  A high lauded children’s book, The Grandma Moses Story Book, was published the next year.
But even Grandma Moses was not immortal.  In the end she just wore out and died in a Hoosick Falls hospital on December 13, 1961 at the age of 101.  She was buried in a town cemetery where her simple grave has become a pilgrimage site.  On her death President John F. Kennedy who had acquired her art for the White House said, “The death of Grandma Moses removed a beloved figure from American life. The directness and vividness of her paintings restored a primitive freshness to our perception of the American scene. Both her work and her life helped our nation renew its pioneer heritage and recall its roots in the countryside and on the frontier. All Americans mourn her loss.”

The Post Office's 1969 Grandma Moses commemorative featured Fourth of July from the White House art collection acquired during the Kennedy administration.
In the wake of her death there was a spate of traveling exhibitions to major American and European museums.  In 1968 the Post Office issued a Grandma Moses stamp featuring the painting Fourth of July from the White House Collection.
Of course decades have passed and tastes change.  A couple of generations are barely familiar with Grandma Moses.  Like those Currier and Ives prints and the faux country crafts décor movement of the 1990’s her rustic and rural art doesn’t fit with a techno-gadget lifestyle.  Still, she has her niche.  The folk art market she helped to create is still quite lively, at least for older collectors.  And despite having produced an astonishing 1,500 or more canvas over her career, individual paintings can still command high values.  Sugaring off sold at auction for $1.2 million.  Even though the folk art market has taken a significant hit since the 2008 Financial Crash, fine examples of her work can still command figures in the low 100 thousands.  Not bad considering some of them first sold for less than $5.

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