Grandma Moses Is Back, and She’s Enchanting

Passing through Washington, D.C., the other day, I went to see a show of paintings by Grandma Moses, and guess what? I was thoroughly enchanted by them. I was in Washington on other business and, frankly, went to see the show more out of curiosity than as a matter of genuine interest. It had been decades since I had laid eyes on a Grandma Moses picture, and I had never paid the work much attention. There were always more important things to look at and, for a critic, more important things to write about. So, for myself, at least, the current exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts called Grandma Moses in the 21st Century has been something of a revelation.

No doubt this indifference or neglect on my part had something to do with the kind of media stardom that Grandma Moses enjoyed in the heyday of her fame in the 1940′s and 50′s. In the mainstream American media in those days, she was as famous as Andy Warhol later became, and much wore beloved-more celebrated, certainly, than Andrew Wyeth or Edward Hopper or Jackson Pollock, or any other icon of American art in that period. I daresay no other American artist in the 20th century achieved anything comparable to the scale of the celebrity Grandma Moses commanded, and there is no comparable figure on the American art scene today.

She was featured on the covers of Time and Life when those magazines were themselves immensely popular, and she even made an appearance on television when that medium was in its infancy. (Edward R. Murrow interviewed her on CBS’s See It Now .) In 1949, she was introduced to President Truman, and-can one imagine anything like this today?-in 1956 President Eisenhower’s cabinet commissioned her to create a painting to mark the third anniversary of his inauguration. And on Grandma Moses’s 100th birthday in 1960, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller observed the occasion by proclaiming it “Grandma Moses Day” in New York State. Yet today, I doubt if there are many people under the age of 50, in or out of the art world, who have any acquaintance with her work.

So who was Grandma Moses, anyway? She was born Anna Mary Robertson, one of 10 children, on a farm in upstate New York, and at the age of 12 she went to work on a neighboring farm as a “hired girl.” Some 15 years later, she married Thomas Salmon Moses, a “hired man,” with whom she too had 10 children, five of whom died in infancy. (Thomas died in 1927.) Like many country women in that period, she took up embroidery-there is a fine example in the Washington show-and it wasn’t until arthritis forced her to give up needlework that, at the suggestion of her sister, she first turned to painting. She was in her late 70′s.

She could scarcely have known that it was a propitious moment for a gifted folk artist to make her debut. In the 1930′s in this country, there had been a tremendous revival of interest in American folk art. Artists-notably Elie Nadelman-collected it. Photographers-notably Walker Evans-were drawn to it as a subject. Government agencies began cataloging it, and antiques dealers helped to create a market for it. Museums-notably the then-new Museum of Modern Art, founded in 1929-took an interest in it. It was all part of the rediscovery of non-industrial American life that took place in the Depression era, when the once-booming industrial economy lay in ruins.

This was the situation when Anna Mary Moses, whom a newspaper reporter later dubbed “Grandma Moses,” began exhibiting her paintings at country fairs and other local venues. Her big break came in 1938 when Louis Caldor, an engineer and amateur art collector, spotted a display of her paintings in Thomas’s Drugstore in Hoosick Falls, N.Y. He vowed to make her famous, and he did. He also bought her some professional paints and canvases-her first.

In 1939, Caldor managed to get three paintings included in a show of Contemporary Unknown American Painters in the Members’ Rooms of the Museum of Modern Art, a show not open to the public. He was even more successful in 1940 when he showed the work to Otto Kallir, founder of the Galerie St. Etienne in New York, who promptly mounted the artist’s first solo exhibition in a professional art gallery. It was Kallir, whose gallery was better known to some of us in later years for his exhibitions of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, who completed the task of making Grandma Moses the most famous American painter of her time. She died in 1961 at the age of 101, leaving an oeuvre of some 1,600-plus works, all completed over a 20-year period.

Jane Kallir, the guest curator of Grandma Moses in the 21st Century , is the daughter of Otto Kallir and co-director of Galerie St. Etienne. She is also our leading authority on Grandma Moses’ life and work. For this exhibition, she has selected some 87 works, divided into five sections that provide a very clear account of both the variety and the development of this remarkable oeuvre . And there is an astonishing development to be found in the work, which begins by echoing well-known popular prints and then, with increasing energy and determination, flowers into a wholly independent pictorial style that owes much to the color and design found in hooked rugs, patchwork quilts and, not least, the artist’s own embroideries.

Although primarily a landscape painter, Grandma Moses was often at her best in narrative pictures that encompass a great many figures performing country tasks and celebrating country rituals and homely pleasures. My own favorites are the indoor pictures- The Quilting Bee (1950), for example-but, then, some of the outdoor pictures- Moving Day on the Farm (1951) and Halloween (1955), among others-are composed in the manner of indoor pictures. She was at once a pattern painter, a narrative painter and a keen observer of nature and its seasonal changes. She painted the life that she knew with sweetness and affection, but without any trace of sentimentality.

Hers was a remarkable achievement, and it is a pleasure to see it revived in this splendid exhibition, which remains on view in Washington through June 10, and will then travel to San Diego; Orlando, Fla.; Huntsville, Ala.; Tulsa, Okla.; Columbus, Ohio; and Portland, Ore. It is a scandal that the show will not, apparently, be seen in New York. But that probably tells us more about the New York art world in the 21st century than it does about the art of Grandma Moses.