Reflections of America
In October 1940, the Galerie St. Etienne presented an exhibition, titled simply “What a Farmwife Painted,” of work by an unknown self-taught artist named Anna Mary Robertson Moses. The gallery had been founded scarcely a year earlier by Otto Kallir, who had fled his native Austria following the Nazi Anschluss. Few art-world relationships have been as unlikely as the pairing of this Jewish refugee dealer with the elderly Yankee painter who would eventually become world-famous as “Grandma Moses.” That a recent Austrian emigré should have “discovered” one of the quintessential American artists of the “twentieth century speaks volumes about the intrinsic tolerance of American society. Kallir loved the “United States as only a refugee can, crediting it not just with saving his and his family’s lives, but with providing a freedom of opportunity that Austria could never, under any circumstances, have matched. Disappointed with the derivative art then common in New York galleries, Kallir was looking for an artist capable of capturing the authentic spirit of his new homeland. He found her in Grandma Moses.
“Grandma Moses” was an affectionate nickname that friends and family had given to Anna Mary Moses. The daughter of Mary and Russell King Robertson, Anna Mary was born in 1860 on a farm in upstate New York, about ten miles west of Bennington, Vermont. Like most farmers, she lived a life of constant hard work and occasional hardship. When she was twelve, she left home to earn her living as a “hired girl,” helping out on the farms of more prosperous neighbors. Schooling was a catch-as-catch-can affair—three months in winter, three in summer—with attendance often curtailed by bad weather or more pressing domestic chores. At the relatively late age of twenty-seven, Anna Mary married a “hired man,” Thomas Salmon Moses. The couple spent the initial eighteen years of their marriage in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. At first, they worked as tenant farmers, but eventually they saved enough to buy their own place. When times were tough, Anna Mary supplemented the family income by making and selling butter or potato chips. She gave birth to ten children, five of whom did not survive infancy.
In 1905, Thomas Moses persuaded his wife to return North, and they purchased a farm in Eagle Bridge, New York, not far from Anna Mary’s birthplace. The children gradually left home to start “families of their own, most settling in the area. After Thomas died of a heart attack in 1927, Anna Mary moved temporarily to Bennington to care for her daughter Anna, who was terminally ill with tuberculosis. It was here that, for the first time in her life, Grandma Moses had the freedom to indulge her interest in art. Picture-making developed as a natural extension of Moses’ domestic skills: she’d always decorated things around the house to make them prettier, and now, at Anna’s suggestion, she began creating embroidered landscapes in her spare time. Arthritis made it hard for her to hold a needle, however, and so Grandma gradually switched to paint, thereby embarking upon an unanticipated professional journey. Initially, Moses’s obsession seemed an odd indulgence. She soon had more pictures than she could give to family and friends, but when she tried exhibiting them at the country fair, alongside her prize-winning jams, the paintings received no notice. In the mid-1930s, she was invited to submit some of her work to a local “women’s exchange” sponsored by the drugstore in nearby Hoosick Falls, but again the pictures were largely ignored.
The pivotal event in Moses’ early career came in 1938, when a traveling collector, Louis Caldor, chanced upon the paintings in the drugstore and spontaneously bought them all. Caldor was an engineer who had emigrated to the U.S. from Hungary after World War I in active pursuit of the "American dream.” While his own career never quite took off, he more than made up for this in his prescient recognition of Grandma Moses. Still, at first Caldor must have appeared as foolhardy as the painting grandmother. He vowed—much to the bemusement of her family—to establish Moses professionally, and he began making the rounds of the New York galleries with a small collection of her paintings. Most dealers proved totally uninterested in devoting time and money to an artist who, then in her late seventies, seemed unlikely to live long enough to justify the investment. But after many months of fruitless effort, Caldor was referred through the emigré grapevine to Otto Kallir. Immediately impressed by the Moses paintings, Kallir agreed without hesitation to give the artist a one-woman show.
Moses’s debut at the Galerie St. Etienne came at the tail end of more than a decade of interest in self-taught art, which was actively championed by such art-world leaders as Alfred Barr, Director of the Museum of Modern Art. “Naïve” or “Primitive” painting was seen as an affirmation of the avant-garde’s anti-academicism, and Kallir’s experiences with modern art in Europe had in fact conditioned his receptivity to Grandma Moses. However, Moses quickly leap-frogged over the relatively narrow boundaries of the American “high” art establishment to reach an audience far larger than any ever before accorded a “fine” artist. The first painter to be taken up by the mass media, Moses benefited from such relatively new technological marvels as live-remote radio broadcasts and television, as well as the older vehicles of film and print. A plethora of Moses products—fabrics, plates, greeting cards, print reproductions and best-selling books—brought the artist’s work into millions of ordinary homes. While these Moses products seem modest by today’s marketing standards, the divide separating “high” and “low” art was sacrosanct during the 1940s and ‘50s. Thus the artist’s extreme popularity and commercial accessibility were felt by some to compromise her creative legitimacy.
Grandma Moses unwittingly became caught up in a battle for America’s artistic soul. After World War II, it grew evident that America needed an art commensurate with its new status as a superpower, and the U.S. government also soon recognized that art could be an important propaganda tool in fighting the Cold War. In the beginning, the exact form and content of this new American art were up for grabs. Modernism—as promoted by Barr and others before the war—was a distinctly European phenomenon. After the war, right-wing congressmen proposed that modernism was nothing less than a foreign Communist plot, a sneak attack on the nation’s creative vitality. President Harry Truman was certainly no fan of abstraction, which he called “ham-and-eggs art.” In keeping with this sensibility, he bestowed the Women’s National Press Club Award on Grandma Moses and, after the ceremony, entertained her at Blair House. When the U.S. Information Service began circulating exhibitions throughout war-torn Europe, Moses was one of the first artists to be signed on.
European audiences immediately took to Grandma Moses, whom they viewed without a trace of condescension and welcomed as an antidote to the perceived soullessness of American capitalism. However, this favorable response was misinterpreted by the American art establishment. “Europeans like to think of Grandma Moses… as representative of American art,” groused The New York Times in 1950. “They praise our naiveté and integrity… but they begrudge us a full, sophisticated artistic expression. Grandma Moses represents both what they expect of us and what they are willing to grant us.” In order to desvelop “a full sophisticated artistic expression,” America would need to hatch its own avant-garde, to snatch the reigns of progress and leadership from Europe. The advent of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1940s and early ‘50s seemed to provide just the ticket, and even the government’s naysayers eventually came to agree that abstraction had its advantages. Whereas much prewar American representational art had been left-wing in orientation, abstract art was mercifully free of overt content. It could thus conveniently be manipulated to serve a propaganda agenda juxtaposing democratic freedom with Communist oppression.
With this turn of events, Grandma Moses was relegated to a vast populist backwater. Mainstream art-world support for self-taught art had already dried up by the mid 1940s, squashed by the lobbying of trained American artists who felt wrongfully passed over by institutions such as MoMA. In the postwar period, contemporary artists and the museum establishment were at last in sync, united in favor of homegrown abstraction and against everything—representational, popular, “easy”—that might stand in the way of America’s international artistic hegemony. If Otto Kallir, who guided Moses’s career from 1940 onward, sometimes chafed that “his” artist was denied the sort of serious critical acclaim he felt she deserved, Moses herself was largely oblivious to such nuances. And despite her estrangement from the art-world elite, she only gained in global stature for the remainder of her very long life. In 1960 and ’61, her 100th and 101st birthdays were proclaimed "Grandma Moses Day” by New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller. When Moses died in December 1961, eulogies poured in from all over the world.
It is easy to understand what the Cold-War-era public, shaken by the recent memory of World War II and the new possibility of nuclear annihilation, saw in Grandma Moses. Her story could not have been more perfect had it been scripted by a Hollywood press agent. The farm, after all, is the prototypical American small business, combining self-sufficiency and independence with unsullied agrarian values. Moses was no Cinderella, plucked from the ash heap by a prince, but a female Horatio Alger, who made good by dint of talent and hard work. That she did so at an extremely advanced age also poignantly illustrated the adage, “It’s never too late.” While the coy “Grandma” moniker may have undercut her acceptance by the nation’s elite, it clearly struck a profound chord with the general public. Furthermore, Moses’s unassuming pose allowed her to slip below the radar screen that has generally prevented female artists from receiving renown comparable to that of their male colleagues. It is startling to think that Moses was not only one of the most successful artists of her time, she is probably the most famous woman artist of all time.
Like Norman Rockwell (with whom she is often compared), Grandma Moses is today undergoing something of a revival. The prejudices which “prompted some critics to dismiss her work have lifted, and the passage of time, while eclipsing the artist’s personal celebrity, has brought her paintings to the fore. “Grandma Moses in the 21st Century”—a loan exhibition curated by the Galerie St. Etienne that began a seven-venue tour in early 2001 and will be traveling through 2002—has evoked an unprecedented response from public and press alike. “Grandma Moses is back, and she’s enchanting” proclaimed Hilton Kramer, a critic not known as a soft touch. Peter Schjeldahl, writing in The New Yorker, concurred: “The paintings are always engaging, sometimes marvelous, and, after a long rest in genteel approbation, as good as new. . . .When you step up to a major Moses—near enough to behold cannily varied, unfussy textures and summary colors that affect the eye by temperature as well as by hue and tone—the picture’s scale turns vast and intimate simultaneously. Beauty happens.”
In order to transcend its historical moment, art must be pliable and ambiguous enough to be freshly interpreted by successive generations. Like the American flags that have become so ubiquitous since September 11, the paintings of Grandma Moses promote a sense of unity precisely because they are capable of embodying such disparate aspects of the American spirit. At one extreme is the harsh rigidity of nationalism, a “my-country-right-or-wrong” ethos that even ardent patriots sometimes question. At the other extreme is a profound tenderness, a belief in the flexibility of American society and in the human potential that flourishes when democracy is allowed free reign. Grandma Moses drew her broad-based audience from such inchoate interpretations of “American-ness,” but the ambiguities in her work could also provoke divergent reactions. Thus some found in Moses a kind of soothing nostalgia, while others rejected her for what they perceived to be cloying sentimentality. Both the artist’s admirers and her detractors projected onto Grandma Moses qualities that reflected their own agendas far more than they did her work or personality.
If a certain open-endedness characterizes all great art, the central ambiguity in Moses’s work derives from her relationship to the American past. In truth, Moses’s view of the past was neither nostalgic nor sentimental, but essentially allegorical. Unlike Norman Rockwell, Moses was not an illustrator, and whereas his characters have a specificity of appearance that identifies them with a distinct moment in history, the figures in a Grandma Moses painting are generic abstractions. Although her paintings are replete with “old-timey” details, such as women in long dresses and horse-drawn sleighs, these vignettes merely allude to the past, rather than slavishly replicating it. Considering how often Moses, in her heyday, was pitted against the rising American avant-garde, it is ironic to note that abstraction actually plays a pivotal role in her art, providing compositional structure while at the same time making her subjects universally accessible. The characters in a Grandma Moses painting are ciphers with whom almost anyone can readily identify.
The other half of Moses’s “secret” is realism, for whereas her figural vignettes are abstract, her rendering of the landscape is extraordinarily naturalistic. As a farmer, Moses was intimately familiar with the vicissitudes of weather, time of day and the changing seasons. And as an artist, she rapidly mastered the subtle color gradations and juxtapositions necessary to capture nature’s shifting moods. It is the landscape that breathes life into a Moses painting, lifting the allegorical vignettes from the past and carrying them into the present. In this manner, her work symbolically unites past with present, depicting them as an unbroken—and implicitly unbreakable—continuum that serves to secure the future. “Memory and hope,” as the artist herself put it, were the keys to her creative vision. In her art, as in her life, Moses looked backward and forward simultaneously. Her paintings expressed a profound faith in America’s heritage, and a firm belief that our values would endure and guide us safely into the future. Particularly cogent in the Cold War years, this is still very much a message for our own time.