Grandma Moses’ landscapes of country life bring back memories of simpler times.
LANDSCAPES OF COUNTRY LIFE BRING BACK MEMORIES OF SIMPLER TIMES.
After the darkness of World WAR II, the American people found light In the rural landscapes of A Woman Affectionately known As grandma moses. Unassuming in her art and standing as a stark contrast to the modernist movement, Moses found great success as she brought people back to simpler times and a slower pace of life through her work. Today, the Shelburne Museum and the Bennington Museum in Vermont showcase collections of her art. In Grandma Moses: American Modern, four experts from the Shelburne Museum and Bennington Museum discuss the implications of Grandma Moses’s work that highlight an American way of life fading into the past.
Born in 1860, Anna Mary Robertson Moses’s childhood took place before the technology of the Industrial Revolution reached the American countryside. The simple, rolling landscape is where she found inspiration for the art she created. Grandma Moses painted scenes of small town life and farming communities exactly as she had seen them in her childhood. These early experiences would go on to influence her entire body of work. Jamie Franklin, a curator at the Bennington Museum, states, “Moses created visually sophisticated paintings that melded her memories of growing up in a preindustrial America with her more recent experiences in an increasingly modernized, homogenous America.” She lived through a cultural revolution within the United States, with a vast number of people moving to new communities known as the suburbs after World War II. Even though the American people were looking to the future, Grandma Moses’s work kept them anchored to their past.
Life in the country continues to be romanticized today, just as it was immediately following the mass migration to the suburbs. Thomas Denenberg, the director of the Shelburne Museum, says, “The popularity and authority of Moses’s artistic vision derived not from her singularity but rather from her role as heir to myriad traditions in American visual culture.” Though we can see all the progress that occurred during the second half of Grandma Moses’s life, at times Americans still find themselves yearning for simplicity. This is where the resonance and significance of Grandma Moses’s work lies. Deneberg says, “Moses’s paintings have been providing viewers with an eternally longed for ‘promised land’ ever since they made their way beyond the boundaries of Washington County, New York, nearly eighty years ago.”
AN UNEXPECTED INFLUENCER
During her lifetime, Grandma Moses transformed from a farmer’s wife who enjoyed painting into an internationally renowned artist. What began as a hobby, creating gifts for friends and family, led to a career of recognition and travel. Her art was featured in renowned museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and even the Musée National d’art Moderne in Paris.
When asked to describe her artistic process, Grandma Moses said, “I look out the window sometimes to seek the color of the shadows and the different greens in the trees, but when I get ready to paint I just close my eyes and imagine a scene.” Her simple approach was a far cry from the more technical processes of other modern artists. Jamie Franklin says,
“Most critics—whether in America or abroad, positive or negative—put Moses and her work in stark contrast to the darker, angst-ridden strains of modern art, notably abstract expressionism.” She did not add any conscious irony or other avant-garde practices. Some very critical labels such as “naïve” or “primitive” were applied to her work. Franklin says “These labels only eased the way for the New York Times art critic Stuart Preston to separate ‘women painters like Grandma Moses’ from serious ‘real painters’ like Jackson Pollock.”
Failing to participate in some of the modernist or post-modernist trends left her out of consideration as one of the great artists of the time. While she was written off as immature and unimportant, hindsight has shown the power of Grandma Moses’s work.
Franklin states, “Built on a foundation of selective memory… and the associative power of popular imagery, her paintings have become iconic images in America’s collective consciousness. They serve today, as much if not more so than they did during her life, as a paradigm for coming to terms with a conflicted present and building a better future.” Her art was outside the context of popular movements, but perfectly in step with the feelings of the American people. Her work personified the transition America went through during the early- to mid-20th century. Franklin also says, “I hope we can begin to understand her not as an anomalous self-taught, folk superhero but as a real contributor to the story of American art of the twentieth century.”
A perfect example of Grandma Moses’s work, this scene depicts small town America. The spire of a church peeks out from the hills and a horse and buggy travels through the streets of the town. This particular town is Bennington, Vermont, where a great deal
Above. The Old Houseatthe Bend Ofthe Road shows a man driving his buggy in the middle of a fall scene. Moses took inspiration for this painting from the Currier & Ives painting American
Homestead-summer. She shifts the season to bring new life to the painting.
opposite, top. Taking Inthe Laundry shows a blustery day on the family farm. The way the trees and fabric are moving and the gray of the sky give the impression that a storm is on the horizon.
Grandma Moses: American Modern by Thomas Deneberg, Jamie Franklin, Diana Korzenik, Alexander Nemerov and Robert Wolterstoff, published by Skira Rizzoli Publications, Inc., © 2016; rizzoliusa.com.