Born in Greenwich, New York, Grandma Moses is the pivotal figure of the 20th-century American folk art movement, known for her decorative, naive landscape and genre paintings of rural New England. She had a precise way of organizing color and pattern.
Most of her life was spent in eastern New York State where she was the child of a Scottish-Irish farm family and led what she later described as a very happy childhood. Her father encouraged her to draw and paint on unused newsprint, which he brought home to keep the children busy, and she used berry juice to brighten her pictures.
At age twelve, she became a hired girl, learning household arts. She married Thomas Salmon Moses and was a conventional farm wife, living with him on a large farm near Staunton, Virginia and bearing ten children, but only five survived. She loved the scenery of the Shenandoah Valley, but never had time to paint it while she lived there.
She and her husband returned to New York State to a dairy farm in a small village of Eagle Bridge, where she spent the remainder of her life. Occasionally she did paintings for holiday gifts, but never took it seriously. However, her husband gave her work much praise, and after his death, when she was in her 70s, she was too weak for hard labor, so she filled her time with stitchery landscape pictures.
Her children thought her work was so appealing they encouraged her to transfer her talent with color and design to painting; her first was on canvas from a threshing machine cover. Her daughter-in-law took her pictures to the women’s exchange in the local drugstore in Hoosick Falls, and Louis Caldor, a private collector from out of town, was highly impressed. He bought the first group and visiting Moses, purchased more.
He tried to sell them to museums and galleries, but had little response. The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. was the first museum to acquire her work, which gradually began to attract much attention. The U.S. Office of Information began to promote her painting as representative of America, and in 1939, she was featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. By the 1940s, she was a household word, a celebrity who was entertained in the White House. She had a television interview with Edward R. Murrow when she was over ninety and lived to be 101 years.
As a thrifty housewife, she was appalled at the high prices her paintings brought and had to have a special manager of her affairs. But Americans love her work for the nostalgia of happy times in the past they suggest, and they are willing to pay large sums for the images she creates.
The Bennington Museum in Bennington, Vermont is the primary public repository of her paintings and has two galleries of ongoing exhibitions of her work.
In 1961, when the American farm wife known as Grandma Moses died, she was 101 and world-famous. Born a year before the Civil War, she was in her seventies when she taught herself to paint. And in her eighties when she became a superstar.
“Grandma Moses in the 21st Century,” is a retrospective at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. In it are 87 paintings, tracing her rise from oblivion in Eagle Bridge, N.Y., to fame as the best-known woman painter of her time.
She painted “old-timey things,” as she put it — recollections of a happy life as a child, then wife, on a farm in Upstate New York and, for a time, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. With a special gift for conjuring atmospheric landscapes and changing seasons, she filled her paintings with communal scenes of families and farmhands, grown-ups and children all happily working together on the endless cycle of farm tasks: making maple syrup or catching the Thanksgiving turkey.
Her birthdays were celebrated on the covers of Time and Life magazines. When Edward R. Murrow interviewed her on “See It Now,” she shoved a piece of paper in front of him and told him to paint a tree: “Anybody can paint,” she said. Her plain speaking endeared her to a world mostly baffled by abstraction.
“If I didn’t start painting, I would have raised chickens,” she told Murrow. “I would never sit back in a rocking chair, waiting for someone to help.” That interview tells you all you need to know about why the public loved her. Moses’ art is most rewarding when seen through the prism of her remarkable life, which began as one of 10 children of a farmer who painted landscapes in his spare time. She learned the womanly arts of cooking, cleaning, sewing, soap making, candle making and so forth by age twelve, and was sent to work as a hired girl to nearby relatives. At 27 she married a hired man, Thomas Salmon Moses, and moved to the Shenandoah Valley, near Staunton, where they worked as tenant farmers. There she bore 10 children; only five survived infancy.
Two decades later the Moses family returned to Upstate New York and bought a dairy farm just a few miles from where she’d grown up on the Vermont border.
She never painted until after the death of her husband in 1927, when arthritis forced her to abandon the “worsted pictures” she’d been embroidering. Soon she was offering her oil paintings on pressed wood for sale at county fairs, along with her prize-winning pickles. Her big break came in 1938 when a traveling collector from New York saw them in the window of a pharmacy in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., and bought the lot.
He took the paintings to Otto Kallir, a refugee Viennese art dealer who’d opened the Galerie St. Etienne in Manhattan. It was Kallir who launched her career in 1940 with a show titled “What a Farm Woman Painted.” That same year, the first book on “Grandma Moses” made the New York Times bestseller list.
Moses work was called American Primitive in the art world. Between the start of her painting career at age seventy-five and her death at the age of one hundred and one in 1961, GrandmaMoses painted approximately sixteen hundred paintings. Some two hundred and fifty were painted after her hundredth birthday. Some say her family never took her paintings seriously, but the art world certainly did.