Summary of Grandma Moses
The story of Grandma Moses attributes success and longevity to perseverance, childlike enthusiasm, and an unwavering appreciation of life's small joys. Moses only started to paint daily from her mid-70s, and from then onwards worked prolifically until her 100th year. Since childhood, as the only sister amongst brothers, Moses passionately resented and resisted the patriarchal stereotype of women and girls being confined to the house, restricted, and dependent. Interestingly therefore, her own paintings omit indoor drudgery altogether and instead focus on the vast wonder of outside nature; they look beyond social expectations and instead gaze romantically towards the horizon. Her paintings give home to a constant hive of activity combined with a great deal of playfulness. Indeed, Moses was a pioneer and a visionary, staunchly independent herself and interested in better equality for all. Utterly self-taught with a directness of vision, her life and work illuminate the far-reaching power of one pair of practical, whilst also determined and devoted, human hands. Indeed, Grandma Moses came to embody a modern-day saint with her birthday recorded as a national holiday.
- Many of Grandma Moses' paintings illustrate day-to-day farm activities, for example, "sugaring off" (preparing maple syrup), shearing and washing sheep, and making soap and butter. Her pictures present these activities as highly creative acts in themselves. Furthermore, the paintings often have a three-dimensional quality that recalls the artist's talents as a yarn embroiderer. The point being that Moses was making things all her life, there was an artistry and originality to all that she laid her hand to, from certain farming methods (she was famous for both her exquisite butter and delicious jam), to other modes of crafting, to painting.
- There is a specifically American quality to Moses' work, not only in the reminder that the first settlers to arrive on the American frontiers were farmers by necessity, but also in an appreciation of the healthy values embodied within a quickly eroding traditional way of life. Whilst Grant Wood and the other American Regionalists are also known for his depictions of (sometimes) idyllic pastoral America, Grandma Moses differs in that she stays clear of stylization and any ethical viewpoint. She instead opens up a more simple, innocent, and authentic window onto American countryside activities.
- As an Outsider Artist, with "folk" and "naïve" tendencies Moses had no formal training; she was an exceptionally imaginative character and worked typically in isolation. Unusually however, her work does not have the same dark, anxious, and conflicting aspects customary to Art Brut. Instead, like the British Alfred Wallis, she focused on joy, nostalgia, and something endearing and quaint about everyday life. It could be that coming to art so late in years has created a sub-category within outsider art intent on rendering the world positively. Both artists inspired more mainstream artists who struggled to reach the same state of raw and untainted creativity.
- As an early example of art commercialized, Moses' paintings were made into a number of salable products including greetings cards, tiles, and fabrics and marketed to sell lipstick, coffee, and cigarettes. This aspect of her work is quite ironic, for although the subject of her work supports self-sustainability, and she herself held ambiguous views on the "progress" of industrialization, her popularization was fueled by burgeoning capitalism. Grandma Moses became a celebrity artist, and her character even featured in a television show. With her paintings as likely to be seen on a fridge magnet or a tea towel as they are hanging on a gallery wall, it is a great achievement to become embraced by popular culture to such an extent.
Important Art by Grandma Moses
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
Biography of Grandma Moses
Childhood and Education
The artist best known as "Grandma Moses" was born Anna Mary Robertson; the third of ten children to parents Russell King Robertson, a flax farmer, and Mary Shannahan Robertson. Author Margot Cleary describes how Moses, "...spent her early years learning how to do women's work on the farm. She helped raise the younger children, made soap and candles and boiled down maple sap." Despite her responsibilities, Moses enjoyed her childhood, later describing it as, "...happy days, free from care or worry, helping mother, rocking Sister's cradle, taking sewing lessons from mother sporting with my Brothers, making rafts to float over the mill pond, Roam the wild woods gathering Flowers, and building air castles." (she wrote thus exactly in her later reflections). Moses had three brothers and she loved being outdoors with them, she describes herself in her own memoir, My Life's History, as something of a "tomboy" and said that if there was anything her brothers could do, she could do it better.
Moses' interest in art began at an early age when she would practice drawing pictures. While her mother wanted her to focus on domestic tasks, her father encouraged an obvious artistic talent. According to Cleary, "her father, who had done some painting himself, would bring home sheets of newsprint now and then[...]and she would set to work. First she would draw in her design, then find her "paints" - some berry juice, perhaps, or a stick or two of carpenter's chalk - and color them as prettily as she could.[...]Her brothers poked fun at her "lambscapes," as she called them, but her father urged her on...."
Typical of rural life in this period, Grandma Moses' education was minimal. Attending school for only a few months she was expected to spend the rest of each year helping her mother with household chores. Perhaps anticipating her future profession, Moses' favorite thing to do in school was to draw maps. It is also worth noting that although she did not paint often in early life, Moses put her hand to a great deal of crafting projects, and she became particularly talented with needlework. Furthermore, her father painted murals in the family's own house, as did her aunt in hers, and a certain playful competition developed within the family as to who could make the best art and be the most creative. This became the family's preferred way to keep busy and pass the time when not at work.
Art remained a family pastime that Moses all but abandoned for a period in her life beginning as an early teen. This was largely due to other responsibilities, which were formalized at the age of twelve when her parents sent her away to board and work as a housekeeper. Over the course of the next decade she would live in various different homes doing all aspects of domestic work.
It was in one of these homes in 1886, when she was twenty-six years old, that the young artist met Thomas Salmon Moses, a hired hand. The two fell in love and were married in November 1887. She wanted an equal partnership and about her marriage Moses later reflected, "I believed, when we started out, that we were a team and I had to do as much as my husband did, not like some girls, they sit down, and then somebody has to throw sugar at them. I was always striving to do my share." On the numerous farms the two worked in various states during the early years of their marriage, Moses worked just as hard as her husband. In Virginia, for instance, she became well-known for her homemade butter which she made and sold on the large dairy farm they were hired to run. Much of the early years of Moses' marriage were also spent raising her children. She had ten children however five died at or shortly after their births.
In 1905, after nearly two decades working in the South, Moses and her family moved back home to New York settling on a farm in Eagle Bridge. The move proved fortuitous as it led Moses to start making art again. The inspiration to create occurred in 1918, when lacking wallpaper for her living room Moses decided to fill the wall space with a fireboard landscape. Enjoying the process so much she began to paint again, although at this point her works were most often only given as gifts to friends and family members, particular in holiday seasons and at Christmas time.
In 1927, Moses' beloved husband died unexpectedly from heart failure. Shortly before this, he had begun to encourage Moses to paint more often. Later, when her career began in earnest, she would credit her husband for her art, stating, "I am not superstitious or anything like that. But there is something like an overruling power...It was just as though he had something to do about this painting business." While her grown son took over the majority of the family's farm responsibilities after her husband's death, Moses was free to begin painting more steadily, turning often to subjects she knew best such as farm activities like the tapping of trees to get maple syrup, holiday gatherings, and depictions of the places where she had lived. She also drew inspiration from others' pictures and prints many of which she stored in a trunk for safekeeping and would refer to later as her "art secrets."
When she had amassed a decent number of paintings, and having failed to sell any at the local county fair, the then 78-year-old Moses was encouraged to include them in an exhibition of artwork by women in the community at Thomas' Drugstore, a local business. This simple act would launch Moses' professional career when in 1938, after being on view for almost a year, Louis Caldor, a New York City art collector driving through the area, saw her paintings. Impressed at her raw talent he purchased every work and, given her address, immediately went to Moses' farm to discuss her work. She was not home but her daughter-in-law told him to return tomorrow and Moses would show him another ten paintings. A nervous Moses, spent the night searching her house for more paintings and was forced to cut a large one in half to make two paintings and meet her quota (something Caldor would not realize for some time). Assuring her of her talent, Caldor purchased the ten paintings and returned to New York with the promise that he would get others excited about her art.
Caldor struggled early on however to get people to pay attention to Moses' paintings. Some found the work too simple or primitive, others found that it did not align with the then popular Surrealist and just developing Abstract Expressionist art movements; however Caldor persevered. In 1939 Moses was included in the exhibition "Contemporary Unknown American Painters" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Then, Caldor met Otto Kallir, the owner of a new gallery who was also drawn to the "folk" quality of Moses' work and her ability to capture the essence of American life. Kallir staged the artist's first solo show, "What A Farm Wife Painted," which opened on October 8, 1940 and provided Moses with her first true foothold in the American art scene. It was also in a review of this exhibition that a reporter referred to her as "Grandma Moses" a name which would stick and for which she would be affectionately known for the rest of her career.
The public quickly became enthralled with Moses and interest in her paintings grew. In 1940, she traveled with Carolyn Thomas, owner of the drugstore that first exhibited her work, to New York City where the famed Gimbels department store was holding an exhibit of her paintings. A large crowd gathered to hear her speak and she discussed not only her work but also the homemade jams and breads she had brought with her. In awe of the attention, Moses later stated, "they took me by surprise. I was in from the back woods, and I didn't know what they were up to. So while I thought I was talking to Mrs. Thomas, I spoke to 400 people at the Thanksgiving Forum in Gimbels' auditorium."
As Grandma Moses' popularity grew so did demands for her paintings and she became inundated with orders. Never truly embracing the "art world" she remained humble, even surprised at the interest in her work. Cleary states, "when asked about price, Grandma Moses would reply, 'Well, how big a picture do you want?' Smaller pictures as she saw it, should cost less, since they used up less paint." Even celebrities, coveted her work including Bob Hope who according to art historian Karal Ann Marling in his January 17, 1946 column, "...boasted that he had just bought a wintertime barnyard scene by the eminent G. Moses. 'It's so real that every time I walk through the living room I can smell wood-smoke,' he quipped. 'She knocks out a work of art faster than a chorus girl can put on her lipstick." Marling further describes how, legendary songwriter Cole Porter, supposedly, "...never went on the road without a big Grandma Moses snow scene to make his hotel suite seem like his home on the forty-first floor of the Waldorf Towers, where another winterscape by Moses always hung in the place of honor over the piano."
Unable to meet the growing demand, reproductions became an effective way to ensure everyone got to have a "Grandma Moses" of their own. The Hallmark greeting card company, for instance, profited greatly from an arrangement with the artist beginning in 1947 to create a set of holiday cards featuring reproductions of original Moses paintings. According to Marling, at the end of her life, Moses had sold 100 million Christmas cards. Marling further describes how, "Grandma Moses sympathized with people who could afford her cards but not the pictures that hung in galleries, so as a helpful tip she told them, 'If you put shellac over the [card],' she advised, 'no one can tell it from a real painting. It will give just as much pleasure - perhaps even more."
Moses' art was also turned into and inspired a wide range of other products including children's dresses, collector plates, aprons, fabrics, knitting bags, pillows, sewing boxes, and wallpaper. Perhaps the most unlikely product, given Moses' simple lifestyle, was a red lipstick by the Richard Hudnut Company. Referred to as "Primitive Red" it was inspired by the red in her Old Checkered House paintings. According to Marling the ad, which ran in all the popular fashion magazines of the period, had the tag line, "Primitive Red,' a red for the woman who knows as instinctively as a primitive painter stroking color on canvas. Pure, unblended red...basic as love and life."
In describing her appeal, Cleary states that, "by the end of the 1940s Grandma Moses' paintings had been included in more than 65 exhibits, and she had nearly 50 solo shows. Her name was a now household word in America, and after the end of World War II her reputation had spread abroad as well. By the 1950s major American museums were acquiring a 'Grandma Moses' for their collections." She also received many accolades including a Women's National Press Club Award in 1949 that was presented to her by President Harry S. Truman. Impressed by her spirit, the President invited her to a private party the next evening where, according to Cleary, "...she even managed to persuade him to play a bit on the piano. Afterwards she said that he reminded her of one of her own boys."
Moses' birthday parties also became major celebrations. The first, arranged as a publicity event by the Hallmark company for her 88th birthday, included a seven-foot-wide cake designed by artist and invited guest Norman Rockwell. While still quite removed from regular and fast-paced city life Moses initially did not know who Rockwell was. However with much in common, both interested in illustrating everyday American life, the two became good friends and Rockwell would frequent many future birthday parties. He even depicted Moses in the crowd for his 1948 Christmas painting featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, scenes for which he was particularly famous.
While her reputation grew, Moses remained true to the simple life she had always lived, quietly painting in her home. Kallir did however, manage to convince her to finally write her biography. Her memoir, Grandma Moses: My Life's History, was published in 1952 and interestingly focused little on the late years of her life as an artist and more on what she considered truly important, her childhood and years raising her family. The book is revealing and worthy of further attention, for as well as including detailed information about Moses' family life it also expresses ambivalence and feelings of conflict with regards to managing the demanding balancing act of life as a mother, wife, and artist.
Late-in-life television appearances also served to propel Moses' reputation. Famed actress Lilian Gish took on the role of playing the artist in the 1952 television series "Playhouse of the Stars" and the two became friends. In 1955, she appeared on "See It Now" and was interviewed by Edward R. Murrow. Her spunkiness and no-nonsense attitude, even about the winding down of her own life, was confirmed in an answer to his question of what she would do for the next twenty years to which she replied, "I am going up yonder. Naturally - naturally, I should. After you get to be about so old you can't expect to go on much further." Upon reflection in her final years, she said that the overarching feeling of her whole life was similar to the feeling she had after any productive hard working day, satisfied.
Moses continued to paint until after her 100th birthday, a day that New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller declared "Grandma Moses Day." The same year she took on a major project, illustrating a version of Clement Moore's The Night Before Christmas for Random House publishers.
In the first months of 1961, Moses' health began to fail and after falling several times, she was forced to live in a nursing home. Fiercely independent, Moses did not like this new arrangement and according to Cleary, upset that her doctor insisted she give up painting, "there were times when she was so annoyed with him that she would hide his stethoscope and refuse to reveal where it was unless he let her go back home." Her efforts proved futile however and in mid-December she died peacefully in her nursing home bed at the age of 101.
The loss of Grandma Moses was felt across America. Marling reasons, "because she had been enlivening the American breakfast table for what seemed to be forever with her quips and down-to-earth advice, the death of Grandma Moses was headline news in papers large and small. A New York shoe store observed her passing with a window display of three of her paintings (and no shoes); giant-sized crowds stood outside on Fifth Avenue in respectful silence." Her ability to capture the spirit of America was reinforced by then President John F. Kennedy who upon her death made an official statement, which read, "her passing takes away a beloved figure from American life. The directness and vividness of her paintings restored a primitive freshness to our perception of the American scene. All Americans mourn her loss. Both her work and her life helped our nation renew its pioneer heritage and recall its roots in the countryside and on the frontier."
The Legacy of Grandma Moses
While largely undervalued and overlooked by art world critics during her time, Grandma Moses was a widely popular artist in the eyes of the American public. Her art, created in a time when the country was rebuilding itself from the horrors of World War II, helped to remind viewers of a simpler time; a time of innocence, hard work, and family values.
Moses helped to break through the barriers of what is considered "art world elite." Challenging the notions of traditional painting (albeit in a different style), it was an arguably entirely modern effort not unlike other trailblazers of different movements that were simultaneously occurring at the same time. Painting in an untrained manner that refused to follow more traditional rules of classical art making, she elevated the status of naïve, folk, outsider, Art Brut, and primitive art styles. Painting in a "childlike" style was greatly respected during the latter decades of the twentieth century, epitomized by the ideas and careers of Jean Dubuffet and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Grandma Moses had started this powerful wave many years before. A hugely popular American painter, her art laid the foundation for other artists painting in these styles such as Vestie Davis, Howard Finster, Bryan Pearce, and Fred Yates.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Grandma Moses
- 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