“If I didn't start painting, I would have raised chickens.”
The painter Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma) Moses, even over half a century after her death in 1961 at the age of 101, is an icon of American art in general and that country’s expression of ‘primitive’ art in particular. With her ‘memory’ landscapes, whose compositions would not have embarrassed the 16th Century Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the self-taught Moses gave her audience a bucolic vision of 19th Century American rural life.
As the writer and curator Judith E. Stein quotes Moses as saying in her 2001 essay The White-Haired Girl: A feminist Reading “I didn't have an opportunity to study art … but if a thing seems right to me, I do it. Art is like the Bible. Everyone reads the Bible and has a different opinion. Everyone looks at pictures and has a different opinion, so I go on my own. I love bright colors so I use bright colors. I don't know much about perspective and things like that. But I paint because I like to and I know what I want to paint… I like pretty things the best, what's the use of painting a picture if it isn't something nice? So I think real hard till I think of something real pretty, and then I paint it."
But perhaps what endeared Moses to the American psyche even more was the age at which she embodied the American dream by personifying the adage “It’s never too late.” For Moses was in her late seventies when she started to take the craft seriously.
As she told an interviewer in 1943 "I had always wanted to paint, but I just didn't have time until I was seventy-six."
At the age of 12 Moses worked as maid on neighboring farms and at 27 became a farmer’s wife. She bore ten children, five of whom survived infancy, as well as contributing to the family income with the sale of homemade butter and preserves whilst practicing the handicrafts of embroidery and quilting.
The onset of arthritis forced Moses to abandon her handicrafts and rather than being idle she took her sister’s suggestion to try painting.
About which she has said: "I did not want my pictures to be eaten by moths, so when my sister, who had taken lessons in art, suggested I try working in oils, I thought it was a good idea. I started in and found that it kept me busy and out of mischief."
The New York collector Louis J. Caldor discovered her paintings in a Hoosick Falls drug store and purchased the lot along with another ten from the artist. At his insistence Moses was included in a 1939 Museum of Modern Art exhibition of contemporary unknown painters. A year later she had her first New York solo exhibition What a Farm Wife Painted which was followed by an exhibition at Macy’s Department Store celebrating Thanksgiving.
At this second solo exhibition Moses gave a talk that avoided the subject of her art and instead concentrated on making bread and preserves and the Thanksgiving customs of her childhood. It was an instant success with the press and from then on Moses was associated with that holiday and Christmas with ongoing feature articles extolling the antiquated "girl next door" and the “farm wife's adaptability for turning her hand to anything."
Such was the popular acclaim that followed the primitive artist received two honorary doctorates, messages from President’s and her last two birthdays were proclaimed as ‘Grandma Moses Day’ in New York. And the prices of her paintings went $3 and $5, depending on size, to $8000 to $10,000 with her painting Sugaring off (see below) selling at auction for $1.2 million in 2006.
But with her feet firmly placed on the ground, Moses has been quoted as saying in 1947 “A primitive artist is an amateur whose work sells.”
The exhibition American Sampler: Grandma Moses and the Handicraft Tradition is currently on show at The Dayton Art Institute until the 21st of February next year.