On October 9, 1940, the Galerie St. Etienne opened an exhibition with the unassuming title, "What a Farmwife Painted." It featured thirty-four relatively small paintings by an obscure self-taught artist, Anna Mary Robertson Moses, from Eagle Bridge in upstate New York. Mrs. Moses, who had recently celebrated her 80th birthday, declined to attend the show. October was a busy month on the farm, she said, and besides, she had already seen the pictures. In an early review of the exhibition, The New York Herald Tribune noted that the elderly artist was known locally as "Grandma Moses." The name stuck, and the seeds of a lasting legend were sown.
When Moses finally consented to come to New York City, in November 1940, for a "Thanksgiving Festival" featuring her work at Gimbels Department Store, it turned out that she was, in fact, the quintessential "Grandma." In a perky hat and a demure long black dress with ruffled collar, the diminutive old lady gave a folksy talk about her homemade bread and preserves. Moses truly did not see a distinction between painting and other things, like cooking or sewing, that she did to create a pleasant home. Later, when painting became a significant source of income, she compared it to alternatives, such as raising chickens or serving pancake suppers, that she might have chosen to earn extra money in these waning years of the Great Depression. Moses's no-nonsense, unassuming manner and her desire to make a productive contribution even in old age proved inspirational to the press and public alike. She personified the adage that, "It's never too late."
As the artist and folk-art expert Michael D. Hall has noted, the Grandma Moses phenomenon melded three preexisting American cultural trends: Populism, Regionalism and Modernist primitivism. Of the three, populism is the most deeply rooted in the American psyche. Americans love to mythologize the achievements of the "common man" (or in the present instance, "common woman") who, like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison or Horatio Alger's fictional heroes, overcomes humble origins. Regionalism, an artistic movement that focused on the landscape and folkways associated with specific regions of the United States, was a response to the stresses produced by industrialization, World War I and the Great Depression. By emphasizing the enduring virtues of home, community, local lore and historical traditions, Regionalist paintings projected a reassuring aura of domestic continuity. Modernist primitivism, on the other hand, was a foreign import, introduced by painters such as Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky, who sought inspiration from artists working beyond the reach of the European academy. The primitivist impulse valorized both the tribal art of non-Western societies and the work of European self-taught painters. New York's Museum of Modern Art, founded in 1929, quickly picked up on this concept, and in the first decade of its existence hosted no fewer than three exhibitions of work by self-taught artists (then often called "primitives").
Grandma Moses, who had been included in a members-only show of "Contemporary Unknown American Painters" at MoMA in October 1939, was one of a number of self-taught American artists "discovered" by the art establishment in the period between the two world wars. (Others of note include John Kane, Horace Pippin and Morris Hirshfield). In 1941, Duncan Phillips, whose Washington D.C. museum had been the first to purchase a work by Kane, acquired his first Grandma Moses. But Moses's appeal soon transcended the relatively narrow boundaries of the art world. Her persona invariably colored reactions to her art, and journalists often played up the human-interest aspect of the Grandma Moses story. Like the work of the contemporary Regionalists, Moses’s evocations of home and hearth, bucolic villages and verdant, rolling hills affirmed American values whose relevance increased when the nation entered World War II. It was this aspect of her art that struck a chord with the broader public, before, during, and especially after the war.
Even as Regionalism proper faded from the mainstream art world, to be replaced, gradually, by Abstract Expressionism, Moses continued to gain in popularity. Indeed, she was seen—and to a degree intentionally promoted—as an antidote to abstraction. A public confused not only by modern art, but by the implications of the nuclear age, found solace in Moses' cheerful, readily comprehensible scenes of rural farm-life. Here the cows would be milked, the crops planted and the hay brought in, from one year to the next, just as spring would follow winter and autumn, summer. Combining stylized representations of nineteenth-century agricultural practices with highly evocative depictions of the surrounding landscape, Moses's paintings linked the past to the present and, in the process, seemed to guarantee the future.
In the years between Moses's first one-woman exhibition at the Galerie St. Etienne in 1940 and the end of World War II in 1945, the artist had developed a significant yet still relatively circumscribed following. Her work was featured in numerous group exhibitions, mostly within New York State. Celebrities such as the songwriter Cole Porter and the actress Katherine Cornell thought it chic to buy pictures from the quaint old lady. Otto Kallir, founder of the Galerie St. Etienne, Ala Story, proprietor of the American British Art Center in New York, and Sidney Janis, a MoMA trustee who had organized the 1939 exhibition of "Unknowns," all competed with one another for Moses's output. And whereas success often spoils self-taught artists, for Moses the increased attention prompted her to take her work more seriously—to get better brushes, better paints, to work larger and more ambitiously.
Kallir was the first to admit that he had been befuddled by the uneven quality of Moses's early work, which included worsted embroideries as well as paintings, and copies of popular prints. However, one work in particular, Bringing in the Maple Sugar , stood out from among the others in the 1940 exhibition. "What struck me," Kallir recalled, "was the way in which the artist had handled the landscape...Though she had never heard of any rules of perspective, Mrs. Moses had achieved an impression of depth, passing from the tall bare trees in the foreground, the huts and large, clearly outlined groups, to hazy tones in the distance...creating an atmosphere of compelling truth and closeness to nature." In 1942, the American British Art Center mounted a Grandma Moses exhibition that included the painting Black Horses. The work was a revelation for Kallir. "If up to that time I had looked upon Grandma Moses's work as interesting and appealing folk art, I suddenly realized that here was an outstanding painter. Her progress within two short years was astonishing...In Black Horses a new conception seems to have emerged, as though the artist's eyes had been opened to broad vistas of nature."
In November 1944 Kallir and Story signed a contract with Moses, agreeing to jointly and exclusively represent her. The arrangement not only guaranteed the artist a steady source of income and freed her from the demands of sometimes capricious individual customers, but, most important, it gave her consistent and coherent management. The events that established Grandma Moses's reputation nationally, and then internationally, followed in relatively quick succession. Kallir immediately launched a traveling exhibition program that over the course of the next two decades brought Moses’s work to over thirty U.S. states, ten European nations and finally, in a Cold-War-era triumph, Moscow. In 1946 the first Grandma Moses Christmas cards and the first monograph, Grandma Moses: American Primitive, were published. Both enterprises proved so successful that in 1947 Hallmark took over the greeting card license, and Doubleday reissued the book in a larger print-run. The first large-scale Moses reproductions were published in 1948, and the following year her paintings were reproduced on drapery fabrics and China plates. In 1949 Moses was invited to Washington, D.C., where her meeting with President Truman received nationwide press coverage. A 1950 documentary on the artist was nominated for an Academy Award, and in 1952 Lillian Gish portrayed Moses in a televised "docu-drama" based on her autobiography, My Life's History (published earlier that year). Moses was interviewed by Edward R. Murrow for a television special in 1955, appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1953, and Life in 1960. By 1950 her birthday was being celebrated annually in the national press; her 100th, in 1960, and her 101st, in 1961, were declared "Grandma Moses Day" by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Truman, Eisenhower and the recently elected President Kennedy all sent congratulatory notes.
By the time of her death in 1961, Grandma Moses was arguably the most famous artist in America, certainly the most successful female painter of the period. While her renown was based in part on her original, iconic style and in part on her down-home personality, Moses was also one of the first artists to benefit from the ascendancy of the mass media in the immediate postwar era. Live-remote radio hook-ups and television were new technological marvels that brought the painter from her Eagle Bridge living room into the homes of millions of Americans. Mass circulation weeklies such as Time and Life were seen by almost everyone in the country. It is estimated that Hallmark eventually sold over 100 million Grandma Moses greeting cards. Everything she did, every new Moses product, reverberated though the media, was picked up by the wire services and circulated in a national press that was relatively unified in terms of content, yet widely dispersed geographically.
If the synergy between Grandma Moses and the mass media seems unobjectionable, even tame, in the context of today's postmodern, post-Warhol commercial environment, many in the 1950s and '60 found her popularity disconcerting. Despite her affirmation by such institutions as MoMA and Paris’s Musée National d'Art Moderne (which in 1950 chose a Moses painting as its first contemporary American acquisition), the artist’s mass appeal conspicuously eroded her art-world credibility. Clement Greenberg, whose theoretical writings bolstered the rise of the Abstract Expressionists, made the dichotomy clear in his seminal 1939 essay, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch." Real art, avant-garde art, was the province of a rarified elite; art that could be readily understood by the general public was, almost by definition, kitsch. Russell Lynes echoed these thoughts in an influential 1949 essay "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow.” “Highbrow” connoisseurs might on occasion profitably poach from “lowbrow” art-forms such as folk art and jazz, but “middlebrow” taste had nothing whatsoever to recommend it. Worse still, Greenberg warned, "The volume and weight of middlebrow culture, borne along by the great recent increase in the American middle class, . . . presents a serious threat to the genuine article."
Though Grandma Moses was clearly not a sophisticated “highbrow,” her success with “middlebrow” audiences seemed to cancel out her original status as a “lowbrow” folk artist. To make matters worse, her renown inspired a host of mediocre imitators, self-styled “memory painters” who seemed to be remembering nothing more than the paintings of Grandma Moses. As these works flooded the market in the 1960s and ‘70s, the leading folk-art expert of the time, Jean Lipman, declared that the modern mass media made it virtually impossible to create genuine folk art. In effect, Lipman defined twentieth-century folk art—and with it Grandma Moses—out of existence. When the genre was revived in the 1980s, under the rubric “outsider art,” Grandma Moses went along for the ride. However, her cheery landscapes fit uneasily with work that was often possessed by dark, abstract visions, created by artists whose “outsider” status usually rested on more than mere lack of formal training.
Moses, who had always been an equal partner with her husband on the family farm and who eventually triumphed in the male-dominated art-world of the 1940s and ‘50s, should have been a heroine to feminist art historians. But for the most part, they, too, passed her by. Curator Judith E. Stein has theorized that this may be because the famous Grandma did not need to be rescued from oblivion, as did so many other women artists. More to the point, there was something almost subversive about the way Moses used feminine stereotypes to fly below the radar, achieving a renown that was denied more conventional female artists of her generation. Because Moses blithely embraced the demeaning "Grandma" moniker, she was taken seriously neither by feminists nor by mainstream art critics. The effects of gender, both negative and positive, on Moses's career, merit further study.
In a world that likes to categorize and name its art, Grandma Moses remains an artist without a clear defining label. Though there is nothing in her background or approach to painting that separates Moses from the other self-taught artists of her generation, such as Kane or Hirshfield, her work exerted a far broader appeal than theirs. Moses was an early art-star, a true celebrity, but her personality was only part of the story, a factor whose importance naturally diminished after her death. She has sometimes been compared to Norman Rockwell, a contemporary whose work similarly memorializes small-town America and who also used the popular press to attract a mass audience. But unlike Rockwell, Moses was not an illustrator, and her paintings look very different from his. Nor, despite her Regionalist affinities, should Moses be formally classified with that group. Her achievement can be viewed through these and other interpretive lenses, yet it remains sui generis. And after seventy years, Grandma Moses’s achievement endures. This, in the end, is the mark of artistic greatness: the ability of the work to survive in multiple shifting contexts and remain forever fresh.