Grandmother Moses started painting seriously at 77 and quickly became a famous American artist
As an artistic child growing up on a farm in the 1860s and early 1870s, Anna Mary Robertson (1860-1961) used ground ochre, grass and berry juice in place of traditional art supplies. She was so small that she called her efforts “lambscapes.” Her father, for whom painting was also a hobby, supplied her and her brothers with paper:
He liked to see us drawing pictures, it was a penny a sheet and it lasted longer than candy.
She left home and school at age 12, serving as a full-time housekeeper for the next 15 years. She admired so much Currier & Ives prints hung in one of the houses where she worked that her employers set her up with wax crayons and chalk, but her duties left little time for leisure.
Free time was even scarcer after her marriage and the birth of ten children, five of whom survived infancy. Her creative impulse was limited to decorating household items, quilting, and embroidering gifts for family and friends.
At 77 (circa 1937), widowed, retired and suffering from arthritis which prevented her from carrying out her usual household chores, she turned to painting again.
Settling in her bedroom, she worked in oil on masonite prepared with three coats of white paint, drawing again and again on memories of her youth such as bee quilting, haymaking and the annual sugar harvest. ‘maple.
Thomas’ Pharmacy in Hoosick Falls, New York, exhibited some of its production, alongside other local women’s crafts. It didn’t attract much attention, until the art collector Louis J. Caldor wandered around during a brief stay in Manhattan and acquired them all for an average price of $4.
The following year (1939), Mrs. Moses, as she was then known, was one of many “Housewives” whose work featured in the Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Unknown contemporary American painters”. The focus was definitely on the uneducated foreigner. In addition to profession, the catalog listed the race of non-Caucasian artists…
Before long, Anna Mary Robertson Moses had a solo exhibition at the same gallery which would give Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele their first American solo exhibitions, Saint-Etienne Gallery by Otto Kallir.
Reviewing the 1940 show, the New York Herald columnThe reviewer cited the folk nickname (“Grandma Moses”) preferred by some of the artist’s neighbors. His wholesome rural good faith created an unexpected sensation. The public flocked to see a table laid with his award-winning homemade cakes, rolls, bread and preserves as part of a Thanksgiving-themed get-together with the artist at Gimbels department store the following month.
As critic and independent curator Judith Stein observes in her essay “The girl with white hair: a feminist reading”:
In general, the New York press distanced the artist from his creative identity. They commandeered her from the art world, shaping a rich public image that overflowed with human interest… Although the artist’s family and friends referred to her interchangeably as “Mother Moses” and “Grandmother Moses “, the press preferred the most familiar and endearing form of address. . And “grandmother” she became, in almost all subsequent published references. Only a few publications circumvented the new phrase: a New York Times Magazine article from April 6, 1941; an article from Harper’s Bazaar; and the landmark They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century, by respected dealer and curator Sidney Janis, referred to the artist as “Mother Moses,” a title that conveyed more dignity than the familiar diminutive “Great -mother”.
But “grandmother Moses” had taken over. The avalanche of media coverage that followed had little to do with the probity of art commentary. Journalists found that the artist’s life made better copy than his art. For example, when discussing his early life, an Art Digest reporter gave a charming, if oversimplified, account of the genesis of Moses’ turn to painting, recounting his desire to offer the postman “a nice little Christmas present. Not only would the dear friend appreciate a painting, Grandmother concludes, but “it was easier to do than baking a cake on a hot stove.” After quoting Genauer and other favorable reviews in New York newspapers, the report ended with a folksy guess: “For all this, Grandmother Moses may be shaking her head in bewilderment and repeating, ‘Land’s Sakes.’ ” Considering the artist’s accomplishments casually as a marker of social change, he noted, “When Grandma takes care of it, we can be sure that art, like the severed head, is here to stay.”
Urban sophisticates were enamored of the outspoken octogenarian farm widow who was outraged by the “extortion prices” they were paying for her work at the Galerie Saint-Etienne. As Tom Arthur writes in a New York State Historical Landmarks Blog:
New Yorkers found that once wartime gasoline rationing ended, Eagle Bridge was a great weekend getaway destination. Local residents were generally willing to tell strangers about their local celebrity and give directions to his farm. There they met the artist, with whom it was pleasant to talk, and bought or commissioned paintings from him. Songwriter/Impresario Cole Porter became a regular customer, commissions several paintings each year to give to friends around Christmas.
In the two and a half decades between resuming her brushwork and her death at the age of 101, she produced more than 1600 images, always starting with the sky and moving downwards to depict tidy fields, tidy, tiny homes, hard working personalities coming together as a community. In the documentary above, she alludes to other artists known for depicting “problems”…like cattle coming out of their pens.
She preferred to document scenes in which everyone was seen behaving.
Remarkably, the MoMA exhibited the work of Grandmother Moses at the same time as Picasso’s Guernica.
In a country and in a life where a woman can age with fearlessness and beauty, it is not strange that she ends up becoming an artist. – poet Archibald MacLeish
Read Judith Stein’s fascinating essay in full here.
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