- Designs on the Heart: The Homemade Art of Grandma MosesOur PickBy Karal Ann Marling
- Grandma Moses: American ModernOur PickBy Robert Wolterstorff, Thomas Denenberg, Jamie Franklin, Diana Korzenik, Alexander Nemerov
- Grandma Moses: in the 21st CenturyBy Jane Kallir, Roger Cardinal, Michael D. Hall, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Judith E. Stein
Progression of Art
In this painting Grandma Moses provides an idyllic view of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. The scene is so realistic that it looks as though the artist has gathered foliage and used a collage technique to make the picture. Lush green fields and flowering trees populate the foreground where three cows graze alongside a wooden rail fence. Further back, a picturesque white house sits on the bank of a river, and then further back still the horizon flows into a distant mountain range.
As this early work shows, Moses drew artistic inspiration from the places that she had lived. After her marriage, Moses moved from New York and spent several decades living in the South including a period of time in the Shenandoah Valley. Indeed, the painting is a good example of one of Moses' "memory pictures." For here, as with many of her works it was not created whilst the artist lived in Virginia, but rather years later. The landscape is therefore not an accurate rendering, but more of a "daydream" made visible of how Moses felt whilst living here. Author Margot Cleary explains how, "...years before she started painting in earnest, Grandma Moses would while away the time at the churn by gazing out on the Shenandoah Valley and wishing she could paint a picture of the scene. When she finally was able to, it was obvious that she had stored away almost every little detail. Highly decorative, in the mode of the primitive painters with whom Grandma Moses was often grouped, her landscapes did more than present hills and valleys and trees and fields; they told stories as well, or inspired the viewer to make them up."
Interestingly, unlike the majority of her paintings, this work provides a rare instance in which not one figure is depicted. Rather the viewer is left to focus entirely on the fertile landscape of the Valley itself. This part of rural America was particularly important to Moses. It was here that she gave birth to her children, half of whom never lived long enough to experience life themselves. In her later reflections on the area she stated, "five graves I left in that beautiful Shenandoah Valley". As such, these sad recollections help to account for the tranquil and loving way in which the scene was rendered. The words also explain why Moses hasn't included people in the scene, for this is a painting dedicated to the spirits.
Oil on pressed wood - Private Collection
Catching the Thanksgiving Turkey
As the descriptive title suggests, in this painting, Grandma Moses depicts a scene of preparations for the Thanksgiving holiday. In the foreground, four boys are in the process of chasing a group of turkeys gathered outside a white barn. While the birds attempt to avoid capture, a man stands in a red coat and hat with rifle at the ready. On the left side of the painting, is a farmhouse. Two figures stand outside the open door as a horse drawn sleigh brings guests towards the house. The entire scene is set against a dark blue sky dotted with white flakes of snow. On the one hand this is a classic greetings card in the making, but on the other it does manage to incorporate life and death, and to acknowledge that the life force is cyclical and at times brutal. The serious part of this message is assisted by the bright blood red used to paint the jackets and heads of the turkeys.
This painting is a good example of one of Moses' main themes, that of celebrations and holidays. Rather than only capturing the key moment of the holiday, that of the feast, Moses' subjects often included the necessary (and often practical) activities required to prepare for the holiday itself, here the catching of the turkey that will be the focal point of the Thanksgiving dinner. In choosing such subjects, Moses was able to depict scenes of great activity allowing for the inclusion of multiple figures and various tasks.
Perhaps the most specifically American of holidays, Thanksgiving, is a fitting subject for an artist who is seen as embodying traditional, homespun American ideals. Upon looking at a Moses' painting, one could get an immediate sense of the traditions of the holiday season. For author Karal Ann Marling, "...in Grandma's pictures you could go home again even if you had never seen a farm before."
Through these utterly innocent renderings of festivities, Moses' paintings became statements about a particular atmosphere that the holiday was supposed to be imbued with, and this was capitalized on to sell products and even to make political statements. Marling explains how, "in November of 1950, shortly after the Korean War began in earnest, General Mills advertised its flour products in a variety of national periodicals under a reproduction of Grandma Moses' Catching the Thanksgiving Turkey (1943). The ad was titled 'The 90 Thanksgivings of Grandma Moses.' It was true that 'the 90th Thanksgiving of Grandma Moses isn't the happiest America has known,' began the essay under the picture. 'Yet despite the shadow that hangs over the world today, we in America have much to be thankful for." In this way, the inclusion of her paintings with such advertisements demonstrates how Moses' works became patriotic symbols and even occasionally propagandist tools in the hands of marketers. For Marling, "in times of crisis and uncertainty - the 1940s and early 1950s - the Thanksgiving pictures of Anna Mary Robertson Moses carried with them a particular resonance, a pang of heartache and hope that helps to account for her great and sudden appeal to the American eye.
Oil on pressed wood - Private Collection
A busy winter scene, as its title reflects, this painting depicts numerous figures in the forefront engaged in various stages in the process of boiling the sap from the maple trees to turn it into syrup. In the center are the outlines of other houses and a church steeple along with wagons of people heading toward the sugaring off activities. It is important to remember that life here is harsh as well as celebratory, and perhaps that it is indeed the great effort undertaken in preparations that in turn brings appreciation for the results.
The process of making maple syrup was a recurring theme for Moses including this early rendition of the subject. At once educating the public on how maple syrup is actually made whilst simultaneously romanticizing the charm of everyday country life led to great acclaim for this series of pictures. According to Marling, "the popularity of Mrs. Moses' maple sugar pictures cannot be overestimated. [...] the 1943 picture puts syruping in the context of a wider world that includes a pretty little church in the middle distance and a snug village on the left horizon. [...] The workers - joyous, industrious, solemn - have a context now in a place that is bright, serene, and reverential: the kindly village life of beautiful New England."
Of specific note is the figure of the young child in the right foreground who is depicted heading towards the center of the activities. It is an example of what curator Jamie Franklin describes as a recurring motif in Moses' paintings, and a possible self-portrait of the artist herself. According to Franklin, "when she found a figure that she particularly liked, she would reuse it in multiple paintings, such as a child with his back to the viewer running into the fictive space of the paintings...." Like a child running into the center of the action is a very fitting metaphor for Moses who always prepared to keep busy and do a great deal rather than remain idle.
While many critics could not get past what they deemed the "primitive" and "untrained" aspects of Moses' art, paintings such as this one helped to endear her to the American public and became very popular in a much wider reaching sphere than the art world. It was also one of the images reproduced by the Hallmark company in a line of greeting cards featuring Moses' work. Marling describes how, "although sales figures were a closely guarded company secret at first, Hallmark's Grandma Moses cards sold in the millions - especially the tiny Sugaring Off.
Oil on pressed board - Private Collection
The Old Checkered House, 1853
A large house painted in alternately red and white squares dominates the center of this Grandma Moses painting. Set in lush country landscape, in the distance are rows of green trees and hills. Moses typically paints a very poetic and attractive horizon line, pulling the viewer in to explore and travel to places unknown (as much in mind as physically). In the forefront, as so often in Moses' paintings, the main action is taking place; here there are figures engaged in various activities and the scene looks much like a child's play set up, there is a dolls' house and lots of toy horses. On the far left, two soldiers stand talking while another riding a horse is looking over his shoulder. Numerous carriages are arriving and leaving the grounds, while other figures attend to the horses in the stables located on the right side of the painting.
The "Checkered House" paintings make up another well-known category of Moses' paintings. As author Margot Cleary explains, "throughout her career Grandma Moses was fond of painting old homesteads of local repute. [...] The Old Checkered House, one of her most popular subjects was a local landmark, one of those 'old-time homes,' Grandma Moses said, that were 'going fast." Moses would have been familiar with the significance of the house having grown up near the building that was located in Cambridge, New York before it was burned down in a fire in 1907. According to text from the Bennington Museum, "in 1777 the building was used as headquarters for the British troops before the Battle of Bennington and as a hospital following the battle. In 1824, the Long family, who owned the house and operated it as an inn, entertained the famed Revolutionary figure General Lafayette."
Moses took as her subject a real place, here a once famous landmark. She did not however simply and truthfully depict it. She instead relies heavily on her imagination and populates the scene according to a long-acquired memory bank of images, not all necessarily from the same place or time. According to Cleary, "demand for Checkered House paintings was so great that Moses painted nearly two dozen versions of it. Some of the paintings showed the house as the artist imagined it at the time that it was built, in the 1700s; others depicted it as it might have looked 50 or 100 years later." The artist's imagination was free and unbound. The appeal of this house was so great that it became the subject of other "Grandma Moses" products including being depicted on an Atlas China collector plate (1950-60); and perhaps most interestingly becoming the inspiration for a shade of red lipstick ("Primitive Red") by the Richard Hudnut Company that featured a Moses rendering of the Old Checkered House in its advertisement.
Oil on pressed wood - Collection of Bennington Museum, Bennington, Vermont
May: Making Soap, Washing Sheep
Here, on the left, men are depicted washing the sheep in a small pond next to a barn. On the right, a woman stands over a large boiling pot in the process of making soap, a known occupation of Moses' along with churning butter. Set in the springtime with rolling hills and green trees, other figures are also shown collecting eggs. The work has an unusual collage quality that recalls Moses' earlier artistic practices of embroidery and quilting. For many years Moses worked with fabric and needlework, and it is clear that processes of layering and combining different smaller sections to create a whole were then further developed and assimilated into her approach to painting.
In this painting the artist animates two important events that happen each spring but also considers differences and similarities between the labors of the sexes. According to Marling, this painting, "...is a good illustration of the division of production between men and women. The painting falls into two halves, separated by the white barn on the center axis. To the right is the farmhouse and its proper work, including tending to the soap kettle. Whilst on the left, the men of the household use this soap to wash the sheep in the pond...." Equally challenging tasks, Moses cleverly uses compositional devices within the painting to show the divisions of farm labor along gender lines. Although doing different work, the emphasis in the picture is that all working contributions are valid, alongside a small protest that woman would rather not be making the soap (Moses recalled that she always disliked this job). Interestingly, the integration of men and women as equals at work on the farm was always important to Moses. As the brave and determined sister amongst brothers, she was aware from a young age that expectations and restrictions set against girls were unjust and infuriating.
Whilst such topics related to everyday farm life had been captured by others before, including most notably the artists of the American Regionalism movement such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, Moses' works were markedly different. Her untrained, non-traditional approach to painting, with depictions of figures and objects that followed no preset rules of presentation or perspective, lent her paintings a kind of authenticity and led to popularity among viewers. Whilst the work of both Benton and Wood is particularly stylized and thus brings the personality of the artist into the frame as much as the scene itself, Moses' pictures do not do this. She does not attempt didactic story telling in any way but rather something much simpler. It is as though she is outlining the reality of rural life to children, and in the end this pared down and in no way egotistical approach to art making appeals strongly to adults as well.
Oil on pressed wood - Collection of Miss Porter's School, Farmington, Connecticut
Hoosick River, Summer
Here Grandma Moses depicts landscape surrounding the Hoosick River. With the summer season in focus, a man plows a field on the lower right while two girls wearing red dresses play with a boy in and around a big flowering tree. In the center is a depiction of the river itself, behind which is a lone-standing farmhouse and barn nestled among tree-covered hills. Further beyond is the newly-built railroad that focuses in on forces of social and technological change and thus provides contrast to Moses' more typical, nostalgic renderings of idyllic scenes and traditional farming practice. Although there is the sense that those who built the railroad have done so respectfully according to the natural contours of the land, there is also a tension raised as to how industrial "progress" will move forward and inevitably soon affect these otherwise untouched scenes of natural beauty and happiness.
As a summer scene, differing to Moses many snowy winter landscapes, the painting highlights the artist's interest in the seasons, her intense study of the changes that occur in an annual cycle, and ultimately a philosophical and meditative focus on the passing of time. The well-known and revered English painter, Ben Nicholson, painted landscapes with the same freshness and enticing pastel color palette as Grandma Moses. Most similar are his paintings of a countryside scene in Birch Craig, Northumberland (c.1930), to which he returned to exactly the same landscape for each of the four seasons. Interestingly, it was Nicholson who discovered the self-taught fisherman turned artist, Alfred Wallis, as he felt great affinity for the "naïve" and "primitive" style that he found in the work of Wallis and also practiced himself. Nicholson and Wallis, like Moses, lived remotely in coastal English villages suggestive that painting is a difficult pursuit demanding of undistracted rigor and focus.
In this picture we see the landscape of the area where Moses lived her happy early years. Indeed, here in Hoosick, Moses recalled being pregnant with her first child and looking around thinking that the landscape was so beautiful that she wanted to paint it at the time. Prevented by daily responsibility, she profoundly held tight to that desire for over 50 years, bearing testament to the combined power of patience and the imagination. Acknowledging the importance of memory to her landscapes, Moses once stated, "what a strange thing is memory and Hope. One looks backward, the other forward. The one is of today, the other is the tomorrow, memory is History recorded in the brain, memory is a painter it paints pictures of the past and of the day."
Oil on pressed wood - Private Collection