GRANDMA MOSES AND THE HISTORY OF MODERN SELF-TAUGHT ART
By Jane Kallir
Anna Mary Robertson Moses--better known as Grandma Moses--has for many decades occupied an anomalous position in the history of twentieth-century self-taught art. Her origins and the story of her recognition by the art establishment place her firmly within that generation of American self-taught artists (Horace Pippin, John Kane and Morris Hirshfield foremost among them) who came to prominence in the 1930s and '40s. Had she died within a few years of her discovery, as did the others, there would be little to differentiate her from them, either in the nature of her work or the circumstances of its creation. However, against all odds, Moses, 80 years old at the time of her first one-person exhibition in 1940, lived to have a flourishing twenty-one year career. And, due to a fortuitous confluence of circumstances involving both the yearnings of the postwar American psyche and the strength and quality of the artist's work, Moses became America's first superstar painter, acquiring a broad-based popularity that far transcended the narrow boundaries of the art-world elite. For this reason, Moses has often been perceived as standing aside from the folk tradition which originally nurtured her and which provided a context for her initial discovery. In this field of "outsiders," she is, curiously, the ultimate outsider.
Moses was originally part of a contemporary folk art “boom” that began in 1927, when Kane was admitted to the Carnegie International Exhibition, and that peaked in 1942 with the publication of the first survey of the subject, Sidney Janis’ They Taught Themselves. This boom grew from an attempt to emulate the European avant-garde, which in its desire to break free of academic convention had for some years been seeking inspiration from the work of untrained artists. Until the boom, there was no substantive market for this type of material, and the first generation of twentieth-century American self-taught painters initially had no realistic hopes of making it professionally. Prevented by economic necessity from pursuing artistic careers early in life, most of them turned to art as a hobby in old age. Yet they were not without aesthetic ambitions: though remote from museums and other institutions of the "high" art world, these painters had a conscious notion of composition and a very deliberate engagement with the craft of picture-making. They honed their skills by looking at books or copying greeting cards and prints. In all of these respects, Moses was entirely typical.
Born in 1860 on a farm in upstate New York, Anna Mary Robertson Moses had always liked to draw and paint "lambscapes" as a child, but she was expected to devote most of her time to helping with household chores. After marrying Thomas Salmon Moses in 1887, she was too busy raising their five children and running their farm to attend much to art. However, after Thomas died in 1927, Moses suddenly found herself with time on her hands. She began by embroidering "worsted" pictures, which were in keeping with her training as a homemaker and with the feminine folk arts of the nineteenth century. However, arthritis made it difficult to wield a needle, so on the advice of one of her sisters, she switched to paint.
A practical and thrifty woman, Moses would have considered the notion of “art for art’s sake” a frivolous indulgence. So, when she had more pictures on hand than could readily be given as gifts, she endeavored to reach a wider audience by sending some to the local country fair. The result was not auspicious: she took a prize for her jams, but the paintings went unnoticed. For several years, she had a group of paintings consigned to a “women’s exchange” at the drugstore in nearby Hoosick Falls, but it was not until 1938 that these attracted any attention. A traveling engineer, Louis Caldor, decided to buy the whole lot and to introduce the artist to the New York City art scene. Again, the results were not immediately encouraging, but finally Caldor succeeded in winning the support of Otto Kallir, a specialist in Austrian Expressionism who was also interested in folk art.
By October 1940, when Grandma Moses debuted at Kallir’s Galerie St. Etienne, the discovery of new "primitives" (then the term of choice) had become something of a fad. Yet Moses almost immediately stood out from the crowd. The defining event was a Thanksgiving festival mounted at Gimbels Department Store after the St. Etienne show had closed. Moses was persuaded to come to New York and deliver a public talk. In her little black dress, accompanied by her prize-winning jams, she charmed the hard-boiled New York press corps as had none of the other folk painters of her generation. It would be several years before Kallir took on the official management of her career, but when he did--in 1944--the outcome was phenomenal.
The first biography of the artist, Grandma Moses: American Primitive, published in 1946, became an instant bestseller. The first greeting cards, published that same year, elicited some sixteen million orders, four times the anticipated press run. Her work was exhibited all over the country and then all over the world. For those who could not afford originals, there were prints, posters, collector plates and even drapery fabric. Moses became one of the first artists to reach a mass audience through radio, film and the then-new medium of television. Newspapers and magazines coast-to-coast heralded her as a kind of late-life Cinderella. She appeared on the covers of Time and Life, met President Truman, corresponded with Eisenhower and even Kennedy. As she continued to grow miraculously old, every birthday was celebrated like a landmark event; her 100th was declared "Grandma Moses Day" by New York's governor, Nelson Rockefeller, as was her 101st, in 1961. She died in December of that year.
The endurance of Grandma Moses' renown--over fifty years from the time of her first show until now--must give pause to those who would contend that her fame was just a passing fad or the result merely of clever marketing. Yes, the artist's personality did play a role, although she was not nearly as accessible to the electronic media as celebrities are today, and she kept her distance by seldom venturing away from her farm. It was, in fact, her sincerity--her ability to remain authentic and forthright despite all the fuss--that so endeared her to the public. To the American nation, just recovering from World War II, just entering the Cold War, Moses represented a vision of a simpler, better time. Her career itself seemed proof of the old adage that, "It's never too late." Moreover, this message was reinforced by the art itself.
The secret of Moses’ achievement lay in her ability to meld memories of an almost extinct nineteenth-century past with renderings of the rural landscape that were very much of the present. Like almost no self-taught painter before or since, she was able to capture the moods and subtle coloration of different times of year, of day and of weather. The accuracy of her landscapes brought her paintings to life, allowing her audience to enter into the work rather than viewing it as a distant souvenir of bygone customs. The viewer's identification with Moses' anecdotal vignettes was furthered by their abstract style, which transformed her little figures into symbolic “everymen” and “everywomen.” Moses’ paintings thereby established a link between the past and the present that seemed to guarantee the future. At the dawn of the nuclear age, her work was perceived as a statement of faith in the enduring value of nature. In this way, the art combined with the artist's personality and wondrous story to provide hope and reassurance to a fearful American public.
Yet Moses’ fame had drawbacks, causing her to become separated from the general run of contemporary folk artists, and to be disowned by many members of the art-world elite who had originally supported the contemporary folk art revival. Folk art is intrinsically a “low” art form that is accepted into the “high” art arena only if and when it serves the art establishment’s agenda. However, the art establishment as a whole remains suspicious of popular tastes. In the case of Moses, popularity was widely taken as de facto proof of mediocrity.
Moses' popularity was also assumed to have sullied her mythical purity as a folk painter. Some automatically accused her of cranking out paintings for the marketplace, but in fact success had a positive influence on the artist. Spurred by the widespread appreciation of her art, Moses increasingly took herself seriously as a painter, and an examination of her work over time demonstrates that she learned and developed from experience, just as any "real," trained artist would. Unfortunately, Moses’ great renown inspired a lengthy cadre of followers and imitators, whose work has too often been confused with hers. However, if one compares these so-called memory painters to Grandma Moses, one sees that few if any ever grasped her overriding command of the landscape. Without this magic element to bring their compositions to life, most memory painters created cutesy scenes of “olde” America, suitable for children's book illustration but not much more.
The “problem” of Grandma Moses derives from the misguided (and ultimately impossible) quest for an art untainted by any external forces. Ignoring the fact that no art exists in a vacuum, purists get mired in calibrating gradations of amateurism and professionalism, influence and originality. When an artist becomes incredibly famous, as did Grandma Moses, the problem is compounded, since imitators inevitably compromise an artist’s appearance of uniqueness. With all this hair-splitting, few take the time simply to look at the art. Grandma Moses did something that almost no other modern folk artist has ever done: she invented a wholly original style and then proceeded to develop it over a protracted professional career. Measured on its own terms, Grandma Moses’ achievement must be hailed as among the greatest of any self-taught painter.