Visit Grandma Moses
The Bennington Museum has a large collection of paintings and memorabilia by this American original
By Peter McLaughlin
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then Louis Caldor had a heck of a good eye.
While traveling through the back country of upstate New York in 1938, Caldor, an amateur art collector, stopped for a sandwich at the W.D. Thomas Pharmacy in Hoosick Falls.
He noticed four small paintings propped up among the homemade preserves and jams in the window.
Enchanted by the crude country scenes, he bought all four for $16.
When he learned that the artist was a 78-year-old farm widow who had just started painting to amuse herself he became even more intrigued. So he sought out the artist and bought all the paintings she had in her home. (The artist cut one of the pictures in half so she’d have the 10 pictures Caldor had been promised.)
With his treasures in hand, Caldor rushed off to New York where he eventually got three of the paintings shown at the Museum of Modern Art. And when art dealer Otto Kallir saw the paintings he immediately sponsored a one-woman show for the remarkable old lady who would soon be known to the world as Grandma Moses.
Luckily -- for people who live in or visit the Berkshires -- the mother lode of Grandma Moses paintings is on display just over the Vermont border where the Bennington Museum has the largest public collection of her paintings in the world.
Exquisite as the paintings are, the real star of the Bennington show is Grandma Moses herself. Her wit and wisdom and down-home common sense shine through in all the exhibits and, especially, in the half-hour video of Edward R. Murrow interviewing her for his television program "See It Now."
Right from the start the art world knew it had discovered a genuine original. When asked, for example, if she’d like to come to New York to attend her first one-woman show she replied with simple country logic, "Why would I want to do that, I’ve already seen all the pictures."
The video, shot in 1955, is as close as anyone today will come to sitting down for a friendly chat with the most beguiling artist of her time.
As Murrow asks the questions (puffing on his trademark cigarette), Grandma Moses sits erect at her easel, painting throughout the interview. She wears a high-necked black dress with a white lace collar and a brooch pinned at her throat. Through round, steel-rimmed glasses her intelligent and playful eyes seem to be having fun with Mr. Murrow.
Though he’s interviewed kings and heads of state and celebrities of every stripe, you can see he doesn’t quite know how to deal with this plain-spoken woman with the level gaze.
"Grandma," he asks, expecting that Mrs. Moses has some sentimental attachment to her work, "do you ever hate to see a painting sold after you’ve made it and like it?"
"Nope," she says, "I’d rather see the money."
And money is what Grandma Moses made bushels of during her 23-year professional painting career. Her pictures sold as fast as she could paint them and they hung in the great galleries of the world. But she never understood why people paid so much for them. She told Life Magazine in a 1960 interview that she thought "they’d be better off buying chickens."
Though she loved painting, and took her work seriously, she looked upon her pictures as products, much like the butter and preserves she made and sold as a farm wife. In a letter to her grandson she wrote, "As for myself, I shall continue painting. I can make more money that way and it’s easier for me than taking in summer boarders."
And paint she did. From 1951 to 1960 she averaged 51 paintings a year -- creating more than 1,600 original works of art before she put down her brush and died at the age of 101. Thirty of those paintings are now on display in Bennington.
Part of the reason for this prodigious output was her habit of painting pictures in batches, like cookies. She’d line up her masonite boards and paint all the blue skies and then the white clouds and some green mountains. She did this mainly to save paint. Moses was famously frugal and in the beginning she used leftover house paint for her pictures and she scavenged for surfaces to paint on. One early painting was done on a piece of canvas that was used to mend a threshing machine cover.
Moses didn’t make a big deal of her painting. She had no expensive art supplies or fancy studio. Nearly all her paintings were produced in the corner of her upstairs bedroom where two windows let the daylight in and a 150-watt bulb in a wall fixture lighted her easel at night.
And that easel, a pine plank, tilt-top table made in 1762, is today the centerpiece of a vast collection of Grandma Moses’ memorabilia in the museum. For nearly half a century, Grandma Moses painted her pictures on this table and she even painted the table with six rustic landscapes.
Also on exhibit are her old dresses and high laced shoes and her family photo albums. There’s the big glass sign that hung above the doors of the W.D. Thomas Pharmacy where she was first discovered and the cover of Time Magazine where she appeared in 1953. One cabinet contains a selection of her old paint brushes, stuck in a glass jar, and the twisted paint tubes out of which she squeezed her brilliant colors.
There’s an old train caboose window that she painted pictures on and dozens of awards, one signed by President Truman who invited her once to the White House where they had tea and talked farming. Then, as Grandma Moses described it, she led him to the piano by the hand and he played for her.
President Eisenhower, an amateur painter himself, was also a big fan of her work. His cabinet commissioned Grandma Moses to paint a picture of the president’s Gettysburg farm for which she was paid $1,000. Winston Churchill, too, was a longtime correspondent with the little lady painter from Hoosick Falls. When Churchill left office as Prime Minister of England, she consoled her fellow artist with a note that said, "I know you won’t be idle, you have your painting and it is a lovely hobby for us older people."
Grandma Moses came a long way from the baby born Anna Mary Robertson in 1860 on a farm in Washington County, New York. After a short but happy childhood she left home voluntarily at 12 years of age to work as a hired girl on a neighbor’s farm. She hired out like that for 15 years until 1887 when she married a farm worker named Thomas Moses. Work was sacred to Mrs. Moses. She worked hard all her life and had little use for those who didn’t. "I had to do as much as my husband did," she said, referring to the farm work, "not like some girls, they sit down and then somebody has to throw sugar at them."
Grandma Moses is the quintessential American folk artist. Her paintings of rural landscapes celebrate the joys and contentment of country life as lived 100 years ago. Her works are filled with houses, barns, farm animals, meadows and mountains. The people she drew were shown cheerfully working the land, gathering sap, bringing in logs, harnessing horses, skating on ponds, riding in carriages and generally enjoying themselves.
Her paintings have universal appeal because they evoke a nostalgia for a time gone by when people lived simpler, more carefree lives.
Like Norman Rockwell, her neighbor and friend, Grandma Moses enjoyed tremendous commercial success. At her Gimbel’s show in 1940 she was called "the biggest rave since Currier & Ives." Her work appeared on calendars, magazine covers and greeting cards. In 1946 she signed a contract for the Grandma Moses line of Christmas cards. With the announcement came orders for 16 million cards, four times the anticipated press run.
But it was this very popularity that caused critics to ask the question: Is Grandma Moses really a great artist or just an artistic phenomenon?
It’s true. In the academic sense she couldn’t draw. Her figure drawings were primitive and her perspective, as one critic put it, "knew no known rules." But, he conceded, her paintings are alive with freshness and truth and the finished product is one of pure harmony.
The world understood that. At the Pushkin Museum, more than 100,000 people stood in lines that reached out into the snowy streets of Moscow just to see her paintings. And a German critic praised her with the line that "her radiant art disproves the stupid cliché that America has no soul."
Those who know the folk art genre see genius in her work. She was unique. And if she doesn’t, as an artist, belong in the company of the great masters ... then neither do they belong in the company of Grandma Moses.
If you go
The Bennington Museum and Grandma Moses Gallery is on West Main Street in Bennington, Vt., just one mile west from the center of town. It’s open daily from 9 to 5 through May 31 and from 9 to 6 from June through October.
The Museum shop offers Grandma Moses prints, museum reproductions, books, postcards, toys and Vermont-made items.
Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and students. Children under 12 are free. For more information, call 802-447-1571 or visit the Web site, www.benningtonmuseum.com.