- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2001


Anna Mary Robertson Moses, better known as "Grandma Moses," began her career as a painter and media star. It was an ironic, and ultimately harmful, combination.
Grandma Moses, who lived to age 101, had her first New York gallery show in 1940 at Otto Kallir's Galerie St. Etienne when she was 80. She called it "What a Farm Wife Painted."
A headline writer for the New York World Telegram gushed, "Grandma Moses Just Paints and Makes No Fuss About It." Another wrote in the Washington Daily News, "'Land Sakes,' Says Grandma Moses, 80, as Critics Rave About Her Art."
A retrospective of Moses' work, a traveling exhibition called "Grandma Moses in the 21st Century," opened March 15 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The works were selected by Jane Kallir, a granddaughter of Otto Kallir, who is co-director of Galerie St. Etienne and an author on Moses.
She examines what she calls the painter's "curious position" at the meeting of "high art," folk art and popular culture. The show is the first to critically assess the painter's work and development.
Grandma Moses became a marketing marvel when she was alive, with mass-produced greeting cards, interviews on TV and radio and a program of reproductions that licensed her images on consumer goods ranging from drapery fabrics to china plates. In 1946, 16 million Grandma Moses Christmas cards were sold.
President Truman presented the Women's National Press Club Award for Outstanding Accomplishment in Art to Grandma Moses in 1949 and tickled the ivories for her.
Artists prize Grandma Moses' kind of success now, but it was frowned upon in the 1950s. Critics began to downgrade her to pop artist.
But the artist (1860-1961) provided a handy national art symbol for Americans who hated the concurrent rise of Jackson Pollock and the abstract expressionists.
Miss Kallir says she organized the 87-painting show in order to draw attention to the things Grandma Moses thought important and lasting — nature, work, families, celebrations and place.
Fortunately, Miss Kallir includes "Fireboard" of 1918, Grandma Moses' earliest known work, in the show. The artist painted it when she ran out of wallpaper in repapering the parlor.
Instead of using wallpaper, Grandma Moses created her own landscape on the board that sealed off the fireplace in summer.
Miss Kallir writes in the catalog that Grandma Moses looked to 19th-century folk painter Rufus Porter and the Hudson River School of painters in her work. The curator also reproduces a landscape by Moses' father, Russell King Robertson, that could have served as the artist's model.
Grandma Moses did not really turn to art until the death of her husband in 1927 and the lifting of farm and child-rearing duties. The couple had 10 children.
She wrote in her autobiography that she had enjoyed painting "lambscapes" as a young child in upstate New York, but could not find the time to continue.
Two events triggered Moses' colorful, patterned style. Her daughter Anna suggested she make "worsted" embroidered pictures in 1932. Moses later saw a landscape reflected in a hubcap. It led to a quiltlike, detailed patterning.
Grandma Moses turned to painting because embroidery became too painful for her arthritic hands. She brought the vivid yarn colors from her "worsteds" to paintings such as "Barn Roofing" of 1951. In the painting, she uses reds, browns, greens and ochres for the men working and those coming to watch. She also employs her usual detailed flat patterning. The men plowing in the distant field are just as strongly delineated as the roofers in front.
Her talent for juxtaposing close-up and panoramic views is what draws many to her art. It was an unconventional approach that gave equal importance to all parts of the landscape. She puts just as much detail in the foreground as she does in the hills in the distance.
The softly curving hills near her home in Eagle Bridge in New York state roll across the background panorama of "Roofing." The more detailed figures of the men create an electric tension with the hills.
The painting shows her well-ordered farming universe as well. Men working together reflect the organization and harmony of nature, which was her main concern. "All the workers seem to take pride in their productivity, and to exist in harmony with the natural environment," Miss Kallir writes.
The public and some critics mistakenly attribute Grandma Moses' popularity to the evoking of nostalgia. She was primarily a landscape painter and used the more realistic landscapes to provide a base for her scenes and abstracted figures.
Works such as "My Homeland" (1945) demonstrate her love for her native surroundings. She painted interiors such as "The Quilting Bee" (1950) and "Old Times" because they were subjects that demanded an indoor setting. They were difficult for her. "Interiors don't seem to be my line," she once wrote.
"I like to paint something that leads me on and on into the unknown," she also wrote.
Her snow scenes are both idealistic and realistic. "It Snows, Oh It Snows" (1951) is a particularly joyous winter scene. Snow covers the earth in a wintry mantle except for the indigo-blue of the far hills. Eleven riders have great fun in a horse-drawn sleigh, and five tobogganers slide down an opposite hill. A family with its pets ventures from a warm house.
Grandma Moses painted nearby Hoosick Falls in all seasons, but the one in winter is the most accomplished. She emphasizes the sinuous path of the river, which picks up the grayness of the sensitively rendered background clouds. She obviously enjoyed experimenting with tonal values. Deep red barns and a steam engine crossing the river provide vivid counterpoints to the flowing panorama behind them.
Miss Kallir aims to combat Grandma Moses myths by showing the painter's development. The curator says the "Grandma Moses style" was developed in the early to mid-1940s with square and quiltlike formats filled with narrative detail.
The painter turned to more horizontal and tighter formats in the 1950s. They were more limiting than the earlier format, giving Moses less room for detail. The drawing was looser. "I'm changing my style, getting modern in my old age, with a head full of ideas," she said in a 1956 interview quoted by Miss Kallir in the catalog.
Grandma Moses later introduced brighter colors, in addition to looser paint application and more compressed compositions. She undertook the illustration of Clement C. Moore's classic "The Night Before Christmas" when she was nearly 100 and in frail health.
Miss Kallir believes that now is the appropriate time to evaluate Grandma Moses' art since her celebrity status no longer overshadows it. "I'm asking present-day audiences to step back and see how she did things with so little schooling and after raising a large family," the curator says.
The time seems right.WHAT: "Grandma Moses in the 21st Century"WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NWWHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, through June 10TICKETS: $5 adults, $3 seniors and students, free for children younger than 12
PHONE: 202/783-5000


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