Can you guess who the most famous American artist was during the 1950s?
Hint: The artist was not an Abstract Expressionist and was also the most popular artist during this period.
Another hint: the artist was a woman.
The artist was Anna Mary Robertson Moses, better known as Grandma Moses, as she was nicknamed. Galerie St. Etienne, which held her first exhibition in 1940, is presenting "Seventy Years Grandma Moses: A Loan Exhibition Celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Artist’s Discovery."
"Grandma" Moses (1860-1961) was a farm wife in Eagle Bridge, in upstate New York, and 80 years old at the time of her first show, "What a Farm Wife Painted." Self-taught, she was turning out worsted yarn embroideries of local scenes, like her Mt. Nebo on the Hill (1940), for years after her husband’s death until arthritis made her consider moving to painting. To her, painting was another aspect of her creativity, a craft she had and could hone, and she started producing small oils.
Otto Kallir, Galerie St. Etienne’s founder, took a chance on the artist, who first became the darling of sophisticated collectors like Cole Porter, then turned into a mass-marketing dream. Andy Warhol would have been jealous.
How popular is popular? Once the media played up the gender, age and unassuming yet hard-working personality of Ms. Moses, her works helped Hallmark sell over 100,000,000 greeting cards adorned with images of her work. A documentary, TV interviews and personal appearances helped people find out that they liked paintings, or at least the accessible ones produced by this lovely lady, who is still beloved and admired. At Galerie St. Etienne, I was pleased to see how terrific her paintings look today. The show is a real treat and a reminder that great art does survive.
Like many other self-taught artists, Moses had to wait until old age to get started, but once fame arrived, she and her art thrived. She mainly depicted her life on the farm, but also copied prints, illustrated poems, and dipped into American history. One of her early oils is Shenandoah Valley (1861) News of the Battle (1938) in oil on oilcloth.
Many of the works from Moses’ first show have been borrowed for this event, including some of the worsted yarn pictures. And it’s easy to see that with recognition she improves rapidly, hitting her stride in a few short years, and continues to experiment, only losing some of her control just before her death at 101 in 1961.
Most of Moses’ paintings are outdoor scenes with landscape and genre elements. Her skies are always interesting, but are often overlooked because of the many vignettes that vie for attention in her best works. In some paintings, they not only show us certain aspects of her life, but they help us to understand it. In Apple Butter Making (1947), for example, she lets us see the entire process of creating apple butter.
Her interiors, although not as numerous, are every bit as lively, as The Quilting Bee (1950) makes clear. People who knew the artist said she was never at a loss for subjects, after all, she had lived a rich life and wanted to record her memories. She recognized that the press, television and the movies were changing Eagle Bridge as well as the rest of the country.
You get the whole truth, and not everything is happy. You know what’s eventually going to happen to the bird in Catching the Turkey (1940). A Blizzard (1956), while amusing in part, shows her neighbors fighting the elements, even running after a spooked bull.
Still, the dominant tone is one of joy and contentment in community. Having looked at a number of contemporary art fairs lately, I can definitely say that that’s one emotion prominently missing. We’re supposedly better fed and educated than ever before, but you would never know it if you only looked at contemporary art. This show provides a little balance.
Moses’ reception during her own lifetime was fueled in part, as folk-art expert Michael D. Hall has suggested, by populism, Regionalism and Modernist primitivism. While this is true, the fact that she’s so unique and continues to appeal puts her into a more important category -- important artists. I think of Clement Greenberg and similar critics, who had no interest in realistic and narrative art like hers, yet technically she’s more varied in her mark-making than the artists they championed. Pity they didn’t investigate, Hoosick Falls, N.Y., in Winter (1944) where the several layers of paint she applied are alive with dabs, drips, flecks, long thick strokes, short curved ones and many other textures and patterns.
Have some fun and visit Grandma’s.
N.F. Karlins is a New York art historian and critic.