Amer­ica’s Grand­mother

Victorian Homes - - Contents - By Meghan Sal­gado

Grandma Moses’ 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.”


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.”

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...

Grandma Moses: Amer­i­can Mod­ern by Thomas Deneberg, Jamie Franklin, Diana Korzenik, Alexan­der Ne­merov and Robert Wolter­stoff, pub­lished by Skira Riz­zoli Pub­li­ca­tions, Inc., © 2016; riz­

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