Saturday 7 September 2013

What a Farm Wife Painted

U.S. political map showing frontier circa 1860 courtesy

She was born before Abraham Lincoln moved into the White House.  One of ten children, she married a farmer and lived a primitive existence on farms in Virginia and New York State.  Giving birth to ten children of her own, only five survived infancy.  Forced to give up farming due to arthritis in 1936, she turned to embroidery to fill her days.  Once she was no longer able to hold a needle, she took up a paintbrush in her mid-70's.  Unknown when her first painting was purchased, she went on to become one of the most famous American painters, eulogized by John F. Kennedy upon her death in 1961.  Her name was Grandma Moses.

Anna Mary Robertson was born on this day in 1860 in Greenwich, Connecticut.  The little education that she received took place in a one-room schoolhouse.  At the age of 12, she quit school and went to work as a hired girl.  At 27 years old, Anna met Thomas Salmon Moses, a hired man on the same farm.  They married and took a wedding trip to North Carolina.  On the way home, they purchased land in Staunton, Virginia where they settled and started to raise a family.

Black horses circa 1942 courtesy

After 20 years, the couple, along with their five children, moved to Eagle Bridge Farm in New York State.  Ten years later, Thomas passed away and Anna was left to tend the farm with the help of her son Forrest.  By 1936, arthritis had weakened Anna enough that she could no longer farm.  Searching for a way to fill her days, she took up embroidery.  Within two years, she could no longer hold a needle and therefore, at 76 years old, she took up a painting.

Sitting on an old battered chair propped up by two pillows, Anna would place her canvas on a Masonite resting on an old kitchen table.  Drawing on memories from the farm, she would paint scenes of maple sugaring, soap making, candle making, haying and berrying.  She sent some of her early paintings to the county fair to be judged along with jars of raspberry jam.  While she won a ribbon for the latter, the former were ignored.

Country Fair circa 1950 courtesy

Mrs. Moses big break came in 1938 when she placed some of her pieces in a drugstore in Hoosick Falls.  A New York art collector happened to stop there and bought every painting, small pieces for $3 and large ones for $5.  The collector even drove to her home where he purchased ten more paintings.

The following year, Mrs. Moses had her first showing of three pieces at the Museum of Modern Art as part of an exhibit "Contemporary Unknown Painters".  In 1940, she had a second showing titled "What a Farm Wife Painted" followed by an exhibit abroad.

Sugaring Off circa 1943 courtesy

Mrs. Moses' paintings often drew on her memories of long nature walks with her father as a child.  With her simple realism, nostalgic atmosphere and luminous colour, she was compared to French painter Henri Rousseau and Dutch painter Pieter Brueghel, even though she had never heard of either artist.  It wasn't long before the elderly artist, now nicknamed "Grandma Moses", would have her pieces featured on Christmas cards, curtains, cookie jars, cameras, dresses, dinnerware and instant coffee.

With her mischievous gray eyes and quick wit, Grandma Moses was quite a hit when she was invited for tea with Harry Truman at the White House in 1949.  The same year, she received an honorary doctorate from one American university followed by a second one in 1951.  While she did participate in some engagements, she spent most of her time in Hoosick Falls, painting 5 or 6 hours a day, and watching Westerns at night.  With her proficiency, she was pumping out the paintings at a rapid rate.  Grandma Moses' showings were often sold out.

Grandma Moses circa 1953 courtesy

Otto Kallier wrote Grandma Moses, American Primitive in 1947.  Four years later, the artist herself recorded My Life's History.  Life magazine featured the painter on its cover on September 19, 1960, in celebration of her 100th birthday, at which point she had produced almost 1600 painting.  But she wasn't finished yet -- she painted 25 more after she became a centenarian.  Her paintings, which a generation before had only sold for $3 to $5,  now commanded $8,000 to $10,000.

Grandma Moses passed away on December 13, 1961.  President Kennedy called her "a beloved figure from American life" who took us back to our roots in the countryside and frontier.  

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