July Fourth by Grandma Moses

July Fourth by Grandma Moses (1951)

Grandma Moses – Part 3

This is my third and final instalment of the life and times of Grandma Moses, the great American Folk artist.  If you have just landed on this page I suggest, before reading this blog, you first go back and look at the earlier blogs covering the early and middle part of her life (My Daily Art Display November 6th and 9th)

I ended the last blog talking about Grandma Moses successful one-man exhibition at Otto Kallir’s Manhattan Galerie St Etienne in October 1940.  At the time of her exhibition she was eighty years of age.  Before the exhibition had finished its one-month run the large Manhattan department store, Gimbels, asked that Grandma Moses’ artwork be exhibited in their store’s large auditorium in time for the Thanksgiving Festival the following month and they invited the artist to be in attendance to talk to the shoppers.  Grandma Moses, who had not attended her one-woman show, agreed to Gimbels’ “meet and greet” request and arrived accompanied by Carolyn Thomas, the owner of the Hoosick Falls drugstore, where the artist’s work was first put on display and her artistic journey had begun.

After the success of the Galerie St Etienne exhibition Grandma Moses works were put on display at other exhibitions in New York and Washington.  In 1941 she exhibited some of her works at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts and for her painting The Old Oaken Bucket, she was awarded the New York State Prize.  Over the years Grandma Moses received numerous requests from people for copies of her work, which they had seen at various exhibitions.  She rarely refused and this would explain why titles of her works often recurred.   It should also be noted that although she provided copies of specific works for people, she would often deviate slightly from the original.  In some cases the scene would be the same but the time of year and thus the weather conditions were changed and thus the tonal quality of the painting was adjusted.

When one looks at the many winter scenes depicted in Grandma Moses’ paintings one can understand why a greetings card company would be interested in her work.  The Brundage Greeting Card Company arranged for a number of her paintings to be part of their 1946 Christmas card selection and the following year, 1947, Hallmark acquired the right to reproduce Grandma Moses paintings and they went on to appear for many years on their Christmas and Greetings cards.

In 1849, aged 89, Grandma Moses attended the Women’s National Press Club Awards held at the Statler Hotel in Washington.  Over seven hundred guests and dignitaries attended and watch President Truman hand out the six awards to women who had made substantial contribution in their field.  Grandma Moses’ received her award for her outstanding accomplishment in Art.  Other award winners were Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s widow, Eleanor for her work as Chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission, Madeleine Carroll, the actress and America’s first female elected mayor of a large city (Portland, Oregon), Dorothy McCullough.  The day after the Awards ceremony Grandma Moses was invited by President Truman and his wife to take tea with them at their Blair House residence (The White House was closed between 1949 and 1951 while the building, which had been found to have serious structural faults, was completely gutted and rebuilt and refurbished).

At the end of May 1949, Grandma Moses returned home to Eagle Bridge in triumph and was met and serenaded by an estimated eight hundred people.  Eagle Bridge had never seen the like before.  She remembered that day well and despite all the homecoming celebrations, she wrote of the time in a letter, simply stating:

“…In a way I was glad to get back and go to bed that night…”

In February 1949, Grandma Moses’ youngest son Hugh, who, along with his wife Dorothy, had been living with her and helping run the Mount Nebo farm died suddenly.  She remained at the farmhouse but two years later in 1951 she moved across the road to a new ranch-style house, which her sons, Forrest and Lloyd had built for her.  Now aged 91, she was not to be left to live alone as her daughter Winona returned from California to be with her.

In March 1952 when President Truman was finally allowed to go back with his wife to live at the White House after its extensive refurbishment, Grandma Moses wrote to his wife:

 “…As I have seen in the papers, the White House will be reopened on April 1st.  It would be a great pleasure to me to dedicate on this occasion an original painting by Grandma Moses to the White House and to the American people, if the President and you would approve of my intention, and if there is a place for it…”

Her offer was accepted and her painting entitled July Fourth has been hanging in the White House ever since.   This is My Daily Art Display featured painting for today.   In 1955 she completed another painting for a US President – this time it was a work of art for President Dwight Eisenhower, entitled The Eisenhower Farm, which was presented to him in January 1956, by Vice President Richard Nixon to mark the third anniversary of his inauguration.  Eisenhower was delighted with the painting but did comment that he wished his farm was as big as the one depicted in Grandma Moses’s painting.

Following the end of World War II Grandma Moses fame spread to Europe.  They had already seen illustrations of her work in magazines but there was now a hunger to see the originals.   In 1950 a collection of fifty of her works was sent to Europe and were shown at exhibitions in all the major European art capitals such as Vienna, Munich, Salzburg, Paris, Berne and The Hague.   The attitude to her artwork changed after these exhibitions.  The art critic for the London journal, Art News and Review wrote:

“…Grandma Moses is one of the key symbols of our time…….She is clearly an artist, whose paintings reveal a quality identical with genius…”

High praise indeed !!

In 1955 she took part in a famous TV programme with the legendry radio and TV commentator Edward Murrow and in May 1960 Governor of the New York State, Nelson Rockefeller issued a proclamation declaring September 7th that year to be “Grandma Moses Day”, which was the day of her one hundredth birthday.

By this time Grandma Moses’ health was starting to decline.  Her strength was waning and she was having severe difficulty with walking.   After a number of falls her son Forrest took her to the Health Centre at Hoosick Falls.  Sadly for Grandma Moses it was decided that she could not continue to live in her home as she needed constant care and so she was admitted to the nursing home.  Away from her own home she was unable to paint and this saddened her.  She never made it back home and although she celebrated her 101st birthday at the Hoosick Falls Health Centre she passed away three months later on December 13th 1961 and was buried at the Maple Grove Cemetery.

News of her death spread far and wide and tributes poured in.  President Kennedy issued the following statement:

“…The death of Grandma Moses removes a beloved figure from American life.  The directness and vividness of her paintings restored a primitive freshness to our perception of the American scene.  All Americans mourn her loss.  Both her work and her life helped our nation renew its pioneer heritage and recalled its roots in the countryside and on the frontier…”

I hope you have enjoyed this look at an astounding female artist.  I have trawled through reams of information to try and get a true picture of the great lady’s life.  I have come across numerous factual contradictions, which I have tried to sort out.   My main source of information was a book I bought myself entitled Grandma Moses by Otto Kallir.  It is a wonderful book and one I recommend you buy.

Bringing in the Maple Sugar by Grandma Moses

Bringing in the Maple Sugar by Grandma Moses (1939)

Grandma Moses – Part 2

This is the second part of my story about Grandma Moses and if you have just alighted on this page, you should go back to my last blog in which I looked at her early life.

I ended my last blog about Grandma Moses in the year 1927.  This was the year when her husband of almost forty years, Thomas Salmon Moses, died and Anna May Robertson Moses became a sixty-seven year old widow.  Following her husband’s death, she remained on her Mount Nebo farmstead along with her youngest son Hugh, who took over the running of the farm along with his wife Dorothy.  One of Grandma Moses’ other daughters, Anna, lived close by in the town of Bennington with her husband Frank, who was her first cousin, and their two children Walter and Thomas.   Anna had contracted tuberculosis and had become very ill.  Grandma Moses spent a lot of time with her and her family taking care of her two grandchildren.  Anna Moses died in 1933 and Grandma Moses stayed on at their Bennington home for the next two years looking after her son-in-law and his children.  This arrangement continued until 1935, at which time Frank Moses remarried and Grandma Moses was then able to return to her home.

Over those past years Grandma Moses found more time to carry on with her embroidery and needlepoint work.  Once when her sister Celestia came to Mount Nebo for a visit she saw some of her sister’s work and suggested that she should concentrate more on painting rather than embroidery.  This advice, together with the fact that Grandma Moses was suffering badly from arthritis of the hands, persuaded her to heed her sister’s advice and she began to concentrate all her artistic efforts, not in yarn but in oils.

I ended my last blog by mentioning Grandma Moses “big break” as far as her artistic opportunities were concerned.   This came in 1938 when her daughter-in-law, Dorothy persuaded her to let her take some of her embroidered work and painted pictures down to the Woman’s Exchange in the W.D. Thomas drugstore in Hoosick Falls and it was at this point that fate stepped in and took a hand,  for passing through the town during his Easter vacation was Louis Calder, a New York amateur art collector and engineer.  He spotted Grandma Moses’ works displayed in the drugstore window, priced between $3 and $5 and he bought them all.  He then enquired about the artist of his recent acquisitions and went to visit her.  He then bought a further ten of her works.

Louis Calder returned to New York and tried to interest people in Grandma Moses’ works.  There was little interest.  Somewhat despondent Calder had virtually given up hope of re-selling his newly bought acquisitions.  However the following year, 1939, he got to hear about an exhibition being held in the Members Room of the city’s Museum of Modern Art that was to open on October 18th and run for a month.  The exhibition was to be entitled Contemporary Unknown American Painters.  Calder went to the organiser of the show, Sidney Janis and showed him the works of Grandma Moses which he had just bought the previous year.   Janis agreed to exhibit three of the paintings, Home,  Maple Sugar Days and The First Automobile.   None of the paintings sold but Calder was not disheartened and contacted Grandma Moses urging her to produce further works for him.

In the meantime Louis Calder went on searching for prospective buyers for the paintings.  It was at the end of 1939 that he heard of a new gallery, Galerie St Etienne, which had recently been opened by Otto Kallir on Manhattan’s West 57th Street.   In 1938, Otto Kallir, then known as Otto Nierenstein, was one of Vienna’s most prominent Jewish art dealers but had fled the Nazi regime and emigrated to the United States.  He then, in 1939, established his gallery and helped to introduce Expressionism to America.   Later in the 1940’s and 1950’s, Kallir would give numerous important Austrian and German modernists, including Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Alfred Kubin, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Egon Schiele their first American exhibitions in his gallery.   Otto Kallir was known to be interested in folk art and primitive art and so Louis Calder arranged for him to see some of Grandma Moses’ art work.

One of the paintings which Kallir really liked was entitled Bringing in the Maple Sugar and it is this painting which I have featured in My Daily Art Display blog today.   Grandma Moses completed the work in 1839 and it depicts a sugaring-off scene in which people are collecting sap from the maple trees.  It is a winter scene set in a snow-covered clearing and we can see people busying themselves with the task in hand of collecting the precious tree sap to be used in making maple syrup.  Once the sap is collected in the buckets it is carried over and poured into kettles which dangle over fires.  Besides the hard-working adults in the scene, Grandma Moses has added the figures of children happily playing in the snow and waiting for some maple syrup candy which is being prepared by a man on the left who is busily stirring the pot.   To the right of the picture we can see a horse-driven sleigh loaded with timber which will be used to keep the fires burning.  In the left mid-ground we see a team of oxen approaching, pulling their sleigh full of wood.  It is a painting full of activity but what impressed Kallir most of all was not the way the artist had painted the figures, which he considered rather clumsy, but the way she had painted the landscape background.  He commented that although he believed Grandma Moses had never heard of any rules of perspective, she had managed to achieve an impression of depth in the way she had depicted the tall bare trees in the foreground to smaller ones in the background and the clearly outlined larger figures in the foreground to the smaller, hazy-detailed figures in the background.   He also liked how she had almost merged the smoke which billowed and rose from the chimney of the hut and the bluish gray sky of an early morning in winter.  For Kallir it was Grandma Moses’ ability to convey a true atmosphere and a oneness with nature that appealed to him.

Otto Kallir agreed to exhibit Grandma Moses’ works in a “one-man show” at his gallery.  It opened on October 9th 1940 and was entitled What a Farm Wife Painted and consisted of thirty-three of her paintings and one of her embroidered works.  The New York Times of October 8th previewed the exhibition and part of the article read:

“…Mrs Anna May Robertson Moses, known to the countryside around Greenwich, New York, as Grandma Moses, began painting three years ago, when she was approaching 80…”

From that day on Anna Mary Robertson Moses became known as Grandma Moses.

The Old Hoosick Bridge by Grandma Moses

The Old Hoosick Bridge by Grandma Moses (1847)

For the last few blogs I have been looking at the lives of artists who were taken from us at a very young age, and in very sad circumstances.   I looked at the lives and works of the French artist Fréderic Bazille and the English painter Brian Hatton both of whom gave up their lives for their country on the battlefield at the age of twenty-nine and in my last two blogs I showcased the life and work of the German Expressionist Paula Modersohn-Becker who died suddenly after giving birth to her first and only child at the young and tender age of thirty-one.  The three painters promised so much and we were cruelly robbed of their artistic talents.  For my next three blogs I wanted to lift spirits and talk about an artist who did not die young, in fact lived to the age of 101.  She is probably far better known in her native America than in the rest of the world.  Let me introduce you to Anna Mary Robertson Moses who became better known as Grandma Moses, the most famous of American naive painters.  Naive art is defined as art produced in more or less sophisticated societies but lacking or rejecting conventional expertise in representational skills.  It is art that is often typified by a childlike simplicity in the subjects it depicts and in its methodology.   There is often a lack of perspective, with objects being depicted the same size notwithstanding whether they are in the foreground or background.  Again, there is no diminishment in detail or strength of colour between objects in the foreground and the background.  There is a simplicity about this type of art and it has become ever more popular.

Anna Mary Robertson was born on September 7th 1860, on a farm in Greenwich, upstate New York.  She was the third of ten children born to Russell King Robertson, a flax grower, and Margaret Shannahan.    She had a simple and happy early life and she recalled those happy days some eighty-five years later in an autobiographical sketch of her early life which she wrote in 1945:

“…I Anna Mary Robertson was born back in the green meadow and wild woods, on a Farm in washington, Co., in the year of 1860, Sept 7, of Scotch Irish Paternal ancestry.   Here I spent my life with mother Father and Sisters and Brothers, those were my Happy days, free from care or worry, helping mother, rocking Sisters cradle taking sewing lessons from mother sporting with my Brothers, making rafts to float over the mill-pond, Roam the wild woods gathering Flowers, and building air castles…”

Her schooling was limited.  She attended a one-room schoolhouse with her brothers and sisters.  She said that schooling was just confined to three months in the summer and three months in the winter but few young girls went to school in the winter as it was so cold and they did not have enough warm clothing.   When she was twelve years of age, she left home and for the next fifteen years she earned a living as a “hired girl”, working at neighbourhood farms.  The work was often hard but she recounted how she benefited from the experience:

“….I left home to earn my own living as then was called a hired girl.   This was a grand education for me, in cooking, House Keeping, in moralizeing and mingleing with the outside world…”

Anna Mary Robertson
the bride (1887)

She spent time living with the Whitesides family who she liked and they looked upon her as one of their own.  They were an elderly couple, devout Presbyterians and every Sunday she would drive them to church in their horse and carriage.  The wife, who was an invalid, was quite ill and Anna for three years cared for her.   When she died she stayed and looked after the husband and his nephew and wife moved in to run the farm.  Anna stayed until Mr Whiteside died and after that just drifted away from the neighbourhood still working as a “hired girl”.

Thomas Salomon Moses
the bridegroom (1887)

In 1887, at the age of 27, she married Thomas Salmon Moses, a farmer by occupation, and the couple left the area for North Carolina, where they were going to run a horse ranch.  However they never made it to North Carolina as once they arrived in Staunton Virginnia, they were offered the chance to run a farm.  The farm had lost all its coloured workers after the war and people were desperate to employ others to fill their places They accepted the offer and lived there for a year before moving on to live and work on a six hundred acre dairy farm.  She wrote about her life there:

“… Here I commenced to make Butter in pound prints and ship to the White Sulphur Springs, W, Va.   I also made potato chips, which was a novelty in tho days, this we continued for several years…”

She gave birth to ten children, five of whom died in infancy. In a letter she looked back at that time with the birth and death of her children, writing:

“… Here our ten children were Born and there I left five little graves in that beautiful Shenadoah Valley…”

She, along with her husband and their five surviving children, Winona, Forrest, Lloyd, Anna and Hugh, left Virginia at the end of 1905 and moved north to the hamlet of Eagle Bridge in Rensselaer County, New York State which was not far from her birthplace.  The couple bought a farm, which was known locally as Mount Nebo, named after Moses’ biblical resting place and went into the dairy business, selling milk.  Over the years one of her daughters, Anna, got married and left home and two of her sons, Forrest and Lloyd, went to live on a farm which they had bought themselves.   In 1927 Anna’s husband Thomas died and their youngest son Hugh and his wife Dorothy took over the running of the farm.  Anna Mary Moses was then sixty-seven years of age.

You may find it strange that up to this point in my account of Anna’s life I have never mentioned her art.  I haven’t mentioned drawing lessons or her desire to be an artist.  The reason is quite simple – art never became a serious part of her life although her father, whol liked to draw,  would give her and her brothers paper and he would like to watch them all draw pictures and she would often colour her drawings using grape juice or juice from other berries.  However with all her work as a “hired girl” and later as a young wife she never had time on her hands to continue with her painting.  However, soon after her husband died  and she was becoming too fragile to carry on with her housework, she needed something to occupy her time, as she wrote in her autobiographical sketch:

“…Here Jan 15, 1927, my Husband died, my youngest son and wife taking over the farm,

Leaving me unoccupied, I had to do something, so took up painting pictures in worsted, then in oil…”

The Old Hoosick Bridge 1818
Embroidery by Grandma Moses

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled The Old Hoosick Bridge which Grandma Moses painted in 1947.  The reason for featuring this work, although she painted it when she was 87 years of age, was that she had in her early days depicted a similar scene, but as a work of embroidery, which was entitled, The Old Hoosick Bridge, 1818. (above)   Initially Anna started making pictures out of worsted wool which she designed herself and were awash with very bright colours.  This scene was typical of her early works which were from memories of her early childhood and as a farmer’s wife.  The old covered bridges were landmarks in her early days but at the time she painted this picture the bridge had well gone.

In my next blog I will continue with her life story and recall how she got her big “break” as far as her art was concerned.

Self Portrait on her Sixth Wedding Anniversary by Paula Modersohn-Becker

Self Portrait on her Sixth Wedding Anniversary
by Paula Modersohn-Becker (1906)

My blog today concludes my look at the life of the German Expressionist painter, Paula Becker, later to become Paula Modersohn-Becker.   For her early life you should first read my last blog.

As I told you in that last blog, Paula moved to Worpswede and joined the other artists in 1898.   The artist colony provided her with a lot of inspiration.  She was influenced by resident artists such as Heinrich Vogeler, whose house, the Barkenhoff, was the centre of the artistic community.   She became great friends with the young sculptor Clara Westhoff and the poet Rainer Rilke, who in 1901 would marry Clara.  She also struck up a friendship with the young German painter Otto Modersohn and his wife Helene.  Otto and Helene Schröder had married in 1897 and their daughter Elsbeth was born the following year.

Paula quickly found her own artistic style, painting pictures of withdrawn farm children and elderly ladies whom she painted in poorhouses (see previous blog).   Paula from the outset had loved the peace and tranquillity at Worpswede but being still young, for remember, she was only twenty-two when she arrived at the artist colony, she still hankered after the excitement of city life.  So after more than twelve months at Worpswede she decided to head for the then art capital of the world – Paris.   She left Germany on December 31st 1899, the last day of the nineteenth century.   After settling in Paris she wrote a letter to her mother, in which she commented about the change of scene:

“…I see these Paris trips as a positive addition to the slightly one-sided life I lead here……………After 10 quiet months in Worpswede, I feel that immersing myself in a foreign city with all of its stimuli is something really essential for my life…”

Clara Westhoff and Paula Modersohn-Becker

Paula was not alone in Paris as her friend, the sculptor from Worpswede, Clara Westhoff, had moved there the previous year hoping to study under August Rodin.     At first, life in Paris was difficult for Paula.  She lived in a small cramped attic room but she still embraced life in Paris with great enthusiasm and was determined to avail herself of an education in the arts, a thing which was still denied to women in Germany at the time.  Whilst in the French capital, Paula Becker studied at both the Académie Colarossi and the École des Beaux-Arts, and made numerous visits to the Louvre, all the time taking pleasure in absorbing the artistic life of the city. Through her friend Clara, she met and got to know sculptor Auguste Rodin. She made many visits to contemporary exhibitions and was deeply impressed by the works of the Post-Impressionists especially Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.  She was also influenced by the strong colours used by the Fauve artists and the Realism style of Jean-François Millet.

Otto Modersohn and Paula Becker

From April to November of 1900, Paris hosted a World Fair, known as the Exposition Universelle.  The reason for this great event was to celebrate the achievements of the past century and to accelerate development into the next.  Paula invited Otto Modersohn, who was still at Worpswede, to come with his wife and daughter and see the great exposition.  Otto Modersohn arrived in Paris in June along with another Worpswede artist, Fritz Overbeck, but he had had to leave his wife behind as she was unwell, suffering from tuberculosis.  Tragically she died whilst her husband was still in Paris.  He immediately returned to Worpswede to look after his one year old daughter.  Paula also returned to Worpswede and during the following year she and Otto Modersohn married and Paula became stepmother to his daughter, Elsbeth.

Paula could not settle back in Worpswede and was determined that she would have to return to Paris if she was to become a serious painter.   Her husband was very unhappy with her decision to leave him despite her promising to return to Worpswede on frequent visits.  So although married, she abandoned her husband, despite his protestations, and returned to Paris.  On arriving in Paris she recorded her thoughts about what the future held for her:

“…Now I have left Otto Modersohn, I stand between my old life and my new one. What will happen in my new life? And how shall I develop in my new life? Everything must happen now…”

These long periods living away from Otto put pressure on their marriage and after a few years the marriage was all but over and they continued to live separate lives.  In 1907 she returned to Otto in Worpswede and it appeared that the two had reconciled.   Paula became pregnant and bore a child, a daughter Mathilde.  Mathilde (Tillie) Modersohn was born on November 2nd 1907.  Otto and Paula were delighted with their new arrival but their joy was short lived as less than three weeks later, on November 20th 2007, Paula Modersohn-Becker died from a post-natal embolism.  She was just thirty-one years of age. Sadly, that same month Paula’s mother died of a heart attack.

My Daily Art Display’s featured painting today is one Paula completed in Paris in May 1906.  It is entitled Self Portrait on her Sixth Wedding Anniversary.  It is an unusual study as one needs to remember that at the time she painted this picture, she was not pregnant.  On the contrary, she had been reported as saying that, at that time in her life, she was not ready to have children and certainly not a child with Otto!  So why did she depict herself “with child”?  I do not know the answer to that but I read one article the other day in which the author states:

“….Paula was not pregnant in this painting The painting, then, is a metaphor for how she felt about herself as a young artist: fecund, ripe, able for the first time in her life to create and paint freely in the manner that she wished. What she is about to give birth to is not a child but her mature, independent, artistic self…”

I will let you make your own mind up as to why she would want to depict herself as being pregnant.

In the painting, she has portrayed herself with the distended stomach of a pregnant woman but her breasts are small and pert and lack the fullness one associates with pregnancy.  It is a life-size portrayal, measuring 101cms x 70cms.  She stands before us, naked to the waist.  Her eyes are level with ours.  She stares out at us with her large brown eyes. Her auburn hair is parted in the centre and swept up into a chignon.    She half smiles.  Her expression is one of self-confidence.   She appears unabashed by her nakedness as she tilts her head to one side in a questioning gesture.  Her only clothing is a white cloth skirt which is loosely tied around her hips below her distended belly.  Her large hands lie above and below her belly.  It is as if she is framing and showcasing her pregnancy.  Around her neck, and lying between her breasts, is a necklace made up of lozenge-shaped amber coloured beads, which subtly glow against her pale skin.

There is a Gauginesque Tahitian look about the painting.   It is an unusual and a complex self portrait which she painted on the occasion of her sixth wedding anniversary to Otto Modersohn and we know that, at this time, their marriage was well and truly on the rocks and maybe that is why she signed the painting “PB” for Paula Becker, her maiden name and left out “Modersohn” her married name.

Almost a year after her death, Rainer Maria Rilke, the poet and husband of her friend Clara Westhoff wrote the poem Requiem for a Friend in memory of Paula. The poem itself is too long to add to this blog but I have attached the website URL below if you would like to read the full translation of this very moving poem.


Her daughter Tillie, who died in 1998, aged 91, founded the Paula Modersohn-Becker-Foundation (Paula Modersohn-Becker-Stiftung) in 1978.  The Paula-Modersohn-Becker Museum in Bremen has the distinction of being the first museum devoted to the work of a female painter. Early in the 20th century, the patron and merchant Ludwig Roselius amassed a collection of the artist’s major works and this along with works from the Paula Modersohn-Becker Foundation bear out her importance as a pioneer of modern painting.

German Commorative stamp

In 1988 a stamp with the portrait of Paula Modersohn-Becker was issued in the series Women in German History by the German

Old Peasant Woman Praying by Paula Modersohn-Becker

Old Peasant Woman Praying by Paukla Modersohn-Becker (1905)

In My Daily Art Display of July 28th 2012, I looked at the life and works of the German Expressionist painter, Gabriele Münter and in my next two blogs I want to showcase the life and feature a couple of the works of art of another early German Expressionist artist, Paula Modersohn-Becker.  She may not be familiar to some of you but I am sure you will find her life story interesting, if a little sad, and her artwork unusual.

Paula Modersohn-Becker

Paula Becker was born in Friedrichstadt, a central district of Dresden in 1876.  She was born into a cultural middle-class family, the third of seven children.  Her father, who was the son of a Russian university professor, had been a government railroad official but had had to take early retirement on health grounds and her mother was the daughter of an aristocratic family.  When Paula was twelve years of age she and her family moved to Bremen.  In 1892, when she was sixteen years of age, she travelled to London to stay with one of her father’s sisters.   During her seven month stay in England she received her first drawing lessons.  Paula loved drawing and painting and wanted to become an artist but her father, mindful of the poor financial rewards of being an artist, insisted that first she must enrol on and complete a two-year teachers’ training course before he would allow her to follow her dream of becoming a painter and study at the Berlin School of Women Artists.  She attended the teachers’ training college in 1893 and completed the course two years later.  During this two year period she received drawing and painting lessons from the German painter and stage designer, Bernhardt Wiegandt.

Just a few miles north of Paula’s Bremen home was the small village of Worpswede, which is situated in the Teufelsmoor, a region of bog and moorland.  It was to play a large part in Paula’s life as it had become the home of an artistic community.  It all began in 1884 when Mimi Stolte, the daughter of a shopkeeper in Worpswede, whilst staying with her aunt in Düsseldorf, met Fritz Mackensen, a young art student at the city’s Art Academy and since he was virtually penniless, she took pity on him and invited him to Worpswede to spend the holidays with her family.  After that, he visited her on a number of occasions and liked the area so much that, in 1889, he made it his home and soon, along with his artist friends, Otto Modersohn and Hans am Ende, founded the artists’ colony of Worpswede.  Other artists, writers and poets soon descended on the small town and in 1895 the “Kunsthalle Bremen” exhibited works by artists from Worpswede for the first time.

In 1896 Paula Becker enrolled on a painting and drawing course run by the Verein der Berliner Künstlerinnen (Union of Berlin Female Artists) which offered art studies to women.  Following this she began a one-and-a half-year apprenticeship.    At first she concentrated on drawing lessons with portrait and nude studies and later she studied painting under the tutorship of the Swedish/German painter, Jeanna Bauck.  The following year, Paula Becker visited the artist colony at Worpswede for the first time and met the German painter, Fritz Mackensen, who became her art tutor.  In 1898 Paula left home and went to live in Worpswede and worked alongside the other artists.  During this period she completed many works depicting women and children of the farming community and for models she would use the local peasant women and their children as well as getting some of the old women from the local poor house to pose for her. She also completed some landscape works, which depicted the desolate and dark moors which surrounded the Worpswede area.  These moors were crossed by a number of canals used by barges for transporting locally harvested peat moss to Bremen.  The artist colony painters of Worpswede believed in and promoted a romanticized view of country life, which they believed was a powerful antidote to the revulsion they felt for urban industrialization. Paula however thought differently and rejected the sentimental approach of her fellow artists, believing that a basically realistic subject could better represent profound spiritual values.  Although there was a kind of peace and tranquillity at Worpswede she still hankered after the excitement of city life.  So after more than twelve months at Worpswede she decided to head for the art capital of the world – Paris.   She left Germany on December 31st 1899, the last day of the nineteenth century.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled Old Peasant Woman Praying which Paula Becker completed in 1905.  There is a kind of Primitivism to this painting similar to what we have seen in Gaugin’s works.  The woman has her large lumpish peasant hands crossed over her chest in a meditative prayer-like manner.  There is a religious feel to this work.  One cannot say for sure what is in the background.  Could it be the coping of a wall with a large leafed tree in the background or is it just a flower/leaf-patterned wall.  However note how the artist has interrupted the background with brightness around the head of the peasant, almost halo-like, giving her a kind of spirituality.   She has a weather-beaten face from the continuous hours spent outside working in the unforgiving sunlight.   The painting is of a lower-class peasant woman and yet it is not a condescending painting.  There is a certain dignity about this woman.  This was never just a peasant painting which was meant to entertain the elite.  This is quite different to the way Van Gogh depicted his peasants in The Potato Eaters (See My Daily Art Display February 7th 2012).   Paula has given her subject a modicum of respect and by doing so has created a beautiful work of art.

In my next blog I will tell you more about Paula Becker’s life, her marriage to Otto Modersohn and her untimely death and feature some more of her works of art.

The Sharples Family

My Daily Art Display today is not about a single painting but about a talented artistic family of English portrait painters.  This was a veritable dynasty of artists of the highest quality.  The head of the family was James Sharples who was born in Lancashire around 1751.  Originally his family had intended that James should study for the Catholic priesthood and he was sent to France for his initial training.   The theological path that his parents had wanted him to follow was not for James and he returned to England.    Instead James followed his chosen profession, that of an artist. At the age of twenty-eight, whilst living in Cambridge, he had four of his pictures accepted for the 1779 Royal Academy Exhibition.  Two years later he moved to Bath where he set himself up as a portrait painter and art teacher.

He and his first wife had a son, George.  Little is known of him but it is thought he could have also been an artist as in the 1815 Royal Academy Exhibition there was a painting by a “G Sharples of London”.  With his second wife James fathered a second son, Felix who eventually came to live with James and his third wife Ellen Wallace.  Ellen Wallace, who was of French extraction, lived in Bath and came from a Quaker family.   She was born in 1769 and was eighteen years younger than James.  They had met whilst she was attending one of his art classes.   James and Ellen Sharples married in 1787 and went on to have two children of their own, James Jnr. born in 1788 and Rolinda born in 1793, both of whom became artists.

George Washington by James Sharples (1796)

Around 1794 James, his wife Ellen and the three children, James, Felix and Rolinda set off for America.  It is thought that James believed that in America it would be possible to make a good living by painting portraits of the leading American figures of the time.  The sea voyage did not go to plan as their ship, according to Ellen Sharples’ diaries, was captured by a French privateer and James and the family were taken to Brest where they were kept prisoners for seven months.  The following year they were eventually released and continued on with their voyage to America, and eventually arrived in New York.   Sharples started working in New York and Philadelphia, which was the then seat of government and a place full of eminent people, including local and national politicians.  It is known that in the execution of his work Sharples  made us of an instrument known as a physiognotrace.  This was a device which was designed to trace a person’s profile in the form of a silhouette.

Slowly but surely, Sharples built up commissions for his portraiture.  The whole family then embarked on a painting tour of New England picking up lucrative commissions which often entailed making reasonably priced copies of his original portraits of American political leaders, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams.   Around 1797 when the family was living in Philadelphia, Ellen Sharples  began to draw portraits professionally.   At this time, there was a  great demand for reasonably priced copies and Ellen’s career of copying her husband’s original portraits on commission flourished and she could command virtually the same price for her miniatures as her husband charged for his mini-portraits. It was not just the mother and father who had artistic talents as their three children under their parents’ tutelage soon became accomplished artists in their own right and were soon able to contribute work for the family business.  Portraiture in America at that time was highly competitive not only because of home-grown American artists but more so from European painters who, like Sharples, had travelled to America in search of their fortune.   This intense competition made it necessary for artists to travel and look for clients rather than wait at home for clients to come knocking upon their doors.   James Sharples often had to drag his family from place to place in search of commissions.

James and Ellen Sharples soon built up reputations as talented portraitists who concentrated on small scale pastel portraits and whose work was in great demand and slowly but surely they became financially secure.  James Sharples died of heart trouble in 1811, aged 60 and Ellen and her two children, James and Rolinda returned to England.  Felix Sharples, who was at this time twenty-five years old, chose to stay in America, working as a portrait artist, where he died in 1830 aged 44.

Charles and Catherine Darwin by Ellen Sharples (1816)

Ellen, along with James and Rolinda settled down in Clifton, just outside Bristol and the three of them set up a family business producing small-scale pastel portraits for clients. Rolinda Sharples began to work in oils and she moved away from being a miniaturist and ventured into the highly competitive world of full-scale portraiture and history paintings depicting groups of people.  Rolinda was elected an honorary member of the Society of British Artists in 1927 and was one of the first female artists to attempt multi-figure compositions, which formed part of the pictorial historical records of the time.

The Stoppage of The Bank by Rolinda Sharples (1831)

The painting above entitled The Stoppage of the Bank by Rolinda Sharples was completed in 1831.   The background to this painting relates to the happenings in 1825 when England had just recovered from the Napoleonic Wars and the country’s economy started to boom.   In the euphoria of this boom, even the most clear-headed of  bankers made risky loans ( a familiar story ??).  The bubble burst in April 1825 and the stock market crashed.   By the autumn a number of country banks had failed causing panic.   It was a financial catastrophe, which led to widespread ruin and misery for the unfortunate people who had all their capital invested in the failed banks.  This is the setting, which Rolinda Sharples illustrates in her painting.   The scene before us takes place in a fictional street, called Guinea Street but which had a great similarity to the real Corn Street in Bristol.   On the right of the painting is a bank whose closure is causing shock and consternation to the people waiting outside attempting to get their money.  Behind, we see the famous Dutch House which stood on the corner of Wine Street and High Street until destroyed in the Blitz. The church in the centre background is All Saints Church.  Rolinda Sharples used some artistic licence when she placed the church in that position, one presumes it was for artistic effect.

The Artist and her Mother by Rolinda Sharples (c.1820)

Both Rolinda and her brother James predeceased their mother.  Rolinda died of breast cancer in 1838, just forty-five years of age and James Jr. died of tuberculosis in 1839.  Ellen Sharples, the last of the Sharples family, died in 1849 aged 80.

Still Life with Flowers and Fruit by Rachel Ruysch

Still Life with Flowers and Fruit by Rachael Ruysch (1703)

My Daily Art Display moves into unfamiliar territory on two counts.  My featured artist is a woman and up to now, I have showcased only a few paintings by women and secondly the work is a still-life painting, a genre which I have rarely selected for my daily blog.  I marvel at the intricacy of the painting and I have no doubt that the detailed work which goes into still-life paintings is equal if not greater than in other painting genres.

My featured artist today is the Dutch artist Rachel Ruysch.  Art historians who have studied the art of the Dutch Golden Age have placed her in the top three female artists of that period.  The other two being and Maria van Oosterwijk, another specialist in flower still-life paintings and Judith Leyster, the genre painter who painted a few portraits and who also produced a single still life work. Ruysch  is widely looked upon as the most talented female in the history of still-lifes of flowers and fruits and among the greatest exponents of either sex of this genre.  True praise indeed!!

 Rachel was born in The Hague in 1664.  She came from a wealthy family and was one of twelve children.  Her mother was the daughter of Pieter Post, a Dutch painter of landscapes and battle scenes, before becoming a talented classical-style architect.  Her father Frederick Ruysch, a talented amateur painter was also a renowned Dutch botanist and anatomist.  He accepted a professorship in Amsterdam and so when Rachel was just three years old the family all moved there.    Her father was an expert in anatomical preservation and the creation of dioramas,  three-dimensional full-size or miniature models, sometimes enclosed in a glass showcase, and which would house human parts which had first been preserved and embalmed in liquor balsamicum.   Rachel took an interest in her father’s work and would often help him to decorate the collection with flowers, fishes, seashells and the delicate body parts with lace.  With his trained scientific eye, Rachel’s father was able to observe and record nature with a high degree of accuracy, and it was a talent that he inspired in his daughter. This talent was to greatly influence her works of art in the future, for her still-life floral paintings would be characterized by realism.  Another reason for Rachel’s love of plants and flowers was that she and her family lived in a district of Amsterdam called Bloemgracht, which means “flower canal”. This area was of great natural beauty and was a favourite place of artists

In 1679, at the age of fifteen she had developed a love for art and was exceptionally talented even at that young age.  Recognising his daughter’s artistic aptitude, her father arranged an apprenticeship for her with William van Aelst, a renowned painter, who specialized in still-life works with flowers or game.  Van Aelst, who moved to Amsterdam in 1657, was famous for creating elaborate still-life paintings that featured spiralling compositions and avoided the convention of symmetrical arrangements of depicted bouquets.  Van Aelst taught her the necessary skill of composing a bouquet in a vase but in his less formal manner that produced a much more realistic and tangible effect. In their more realistic works, some flowers and leaves were allowed to droop over the sides of vases, while others were revealed from the back, and by so doing, produced a more rounded shape. Later in her artistic journey, Ruysch would build upon van Aelst’s compositional innovations and this would instil a vitality into her paintings.

Rachel remained a pupil of his until his death four years later in 1683.  Her earliest art works started to appear around 1680 and by the time she was eighteen years of age in 1682 she was producing a number of independently signed paintings and her successful artistic career had just begun.

 In 1693, aged twenty nine she married the lace dealer and portrait painter, Juriaen Pool.  The couple moved to The Hague where they both enrolled in the city’s Guild of St Luke, the professional artists’ organization which regulated the sales and handled the promotion of the artists’ works.  By all accounts their marriage was a happy one and the couple went on to have ten children.  Even though, as she claimed, she essentially raised her children on her own, her life of domesticity and all the chores that went with it coincided with her most creative artistic period. Her large family seemed in no way to get in the way of the quality of her work

In 1708, both Rachel and her husband were invited to Dusseldorf, where they became court painters to the Elector Palatine of Bavaria, Johann Wilhelm.   This proved to be a very successful period in their lives and they remained there and worked for him until his death in 1716, at which time they returned to Holland.  Flower painting emerged as part of the Baroque movement and was especially popular in the late 17th century.   The reason for its popular emergence was the increase in the number of more affluent merchants and middle classes, as well as the growing interest in plants that resulted from the developing science of botany.  It was also around this time in northern Europe, especially Holland, that there was a marked increase in the importation of many new and exotic plants. The Dutch had developed a wide variety of flowers and gardening became increasingly popular. Often, gardeners would commission artists to paint pictures of their best or rarest flowers.

In light of her situation, she was fairly productive throughout her lifetime. She finished her final painting in 1747, when she was 83. By the time she died, she had produced more than 250 pictures, an average of about five pictures a year, which was a considerable number of works for someone creating flower paintings in painstaking detail.

Rachel Ruysch had to overcome two problems which were common in the artistic world of northern Europe at the time.  Firstly she had to overcome the fact that she was a woman and artistic painting was considered a male province.  Secondly, during this period, art was divided into two categories – “greater” and “lesser”.  Into the “greater” category one found paintings of religious and historical themes and compartmentalised in the “lesser” category were portraits, landscapes and still-lifes.  It was this “lesser” category which was deemed fit for female artists.  Women artists who painted were considered to be just painting as a hobby and were completely incapable of artistic genius. However Rachel Ruysch triumphed and became a highly regarded artist who made her mark in the male world of the Dutch Old Masters, becoming one of the greatest flower painters in either gender.

Ruysch died in 1750 at age 86, and during her lifetime she gained widespread fame, and her artistic works were highly valued.   Despite the fact that flower paintings today is still  considered as a lesser form of artistic expression, Ruysch’s reputation as a great painter remains intact.   During the 20th century, there was great interest in her works and her paintings are still featured in major exhibitions in Europe.  She is thought to have produced over 250 paintings in her life but only about 100 are known to still exist, and most of these are in museums or private collections. When any of her paintings do come up for sale they make headlines. In France her 1710 painting Still Life of Fruit with a Birds Nest and Insects went for the equivalent of $508,000.

My Daily Art Display painting by Rachel Ruysch is entitled Still Life with Flowers and Fruit, which she painted in 1703.  This painting, which measures 85cms x 68cms, has an opulent arrangement of flowers and fruit but could never have existed in nature as the various flower specimens and fruit blossomed and bore fruit in different seasons.  This blossoming was simply a figment of the artist’s imagination.  There is a technical perfection about this painting which had come from Rachel’s extensive botanical training.  The painting now hangs in the Akademie der bildenden Künste, in Vienna

The Return from Inkerman by Elizabeth Thompson

The Return from Inkerman by Elizabeth Thompson (1877)

My Daily Art Display today is a war painting depicting the conclusion of the Battle of Inkerman and the British troops, or what was left of them marching back to camp.  The work of art was painted by Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, the British female painter, who had attained celebrity status with her history paintings, and especially those depicting military conflicts involving British troops.

She was born in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1846 and at the age of thirteen, when she and her family lived in Italy, began to receive art tuition.  In 1862 she travelled to London where she enrolled in the Female School of Art which along with the National School of Art coalesced into the Royal College of Art in 1869.    In 1869, with the family now living in Florence she enrolled in the Accademia di Belle Arti which was the top-rated academy for drawing in the whole of Europe.  Her favoured art genre at the outset of her painting career was that of religious art and it was not until she went to Paris at the age of twenty-eight that this was to change.   In Paris she came across the works of Jean-Louis Meissonier the French Classicist painter who was famed for his works of art depicting Napoleon and his armies and other military scenes.  She also saw works by the military painter Édouard Detaille, who had been a pupil of Meissonier.  She was so enthused with their military paintings that she decided that in future this was to be her choice of art genre.

In 1873 she completed a work entitled Missing which depicted two wounded French officers during the Franco-Prussian War and which was the first of her paintings to be accepted by the Royal Academy.  The following year she exhibited a painting which was to be one of her most popular and made her a nineteenth century celebrity.  It was entitled The Roll Call and it depicted a scene from the Crimean War in which we see a battalion of the Grenadier Guards, many of who were wounded and exhausted, gathered around for the roll call so as to ascertain who had and who had not survived the latest battle.  The painting was shown around the art capitals of Europe and in doing so her fame as an artist spread throughout the continent.

In 1877 she married a Tipperary man, Sir William Francis Butler, who was an officer in the British army and who rose in the ranks to finally become a lieutenant-general.  This army life of her husband afforded Elizabeth, now Lady Butler, the opportunity to travel with him throughout the British Empire.  The couple went on to have six children but the burden of motherhood did not prevent her from painting many more military scenes.

When her husband retired from the army in 1905 the couple retired to Bansha Castle in Tipperary.  Her husband died in 1910 but she remained at Bansha until she was seventy-six years of age at which time she went to live with her youngest daughter.  She died in 1933 just a month short of her eighty-seventh birthday.

The featured painting today is entitled The Return from Inkerman by Elizabeth Thompson which she completed in 1877.  This was the final work of her quartet of paintings she did between 1874 and 1877 depicting scenes from the Crimean War.  The painting depicts a ragged column of exhausted soldiers trudging back to camp, many of who are wounded and are only just able to stand up.  Their commanding officer on horseback rides at the head of the column.  The men try to keep their heads held high as they pass fallen comrades who lie at the side of the road.  Their tattered uniforms remind us of the ferocity of the battle which has just concluded.  The battle took place on the heights of Inkerman where the Russians had mounted a counter-attack on the British forces.   The weather had been terrible during the battle with driving rain interspersed with thick fog making the commanding of the troops difficult for both sides.  This battle was one of many bloody encounters which occurred during the siege on the Russian town of Sebastopol in November 1854 and was part of the Crimean War campaign.  It was a ferocious battle and cost the lives of 2,500 British and 12,000 Russian troops.   In her painting the troops depicted are mainly from the Coldstream Guards and the 20th East Devonshire regiment.

While she never witnessed actual warfare, she was in Egypt for some years in the 1880’s with her husband and many of her pictures were drawn accurately using models in some cases, or observing soldiers on manoeuvres or practicing charges at Aldershot. To help with her paintings, the soldiers even re-enacted the battle in their original uniforms worn throughout the campaign.

There is a great sense of realism to this painting.  In it we see the men and their suffering.  However in some quarters this realism was too much to bear.  As would be the case now, the public did not want to be reminded of such sufferings on the battlefield.  For most of the public and the hierarchy of the Royal Academy they preferred more uplifting depictions of victorious battles and acts of heroism which would lift people’s spirits.  Many artists pandered to such wishes but as the French master of military paintings, Édouard Detaille, commented:

“…L’Angleterre n’a guère qu’un peintre militaire; c’est une femme…”

(England has only one military painter; and it is a woman)

However Elizabeth Thompson would not change her style and defended it in her 1922 autobiography, writing:

“…I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism…”

However she still had many supporters of her painting style.  Wilfred Meynell, the Victorian biographer, wrote in his book The Life and Work of Lady Butler:

“…Lady Butler has done for the soldier in Art what Mr. Rudyard Kipling has done for him in Literature – she has taken the individual, separated him, seen him close, and let the world see him…..”

The Daily Telegraph of the day wrote of Elizabeth Thompson’s great ability as a female military artist, writing:

“…Miss E. Thompson, a young lady scarcely heard of hitherto, with a modest, sober, unobtrusive painting, but replete with vigour, with judgement, with skill, with expression, and with pathos – such expression as we marvel at in Hogarth for its variety, such pathos as we recognize under the rough or stiff militarism of Horace Vernet – has shown her sisters which way they should go, and has approved herself the valiant compeer even of most famous and most experienced veterans of the line. To the unselect many, to the general public, Miss Thompson is as new as the Albert Memorial at Kensington; and it is for that reason that we hail her appearance with this honest, manly Crimean picture, as full of genius as it is of industry. We say that this sign is a wholesome one; because in every work of art-excellence executed by a woman, and commanding public acceptance and applause, we see a manacle knocked off a woman’s wrist, and a shackle hacked off her ankle. We see her enlarged from wasting upon fruitless objects the sympathies which should be developed for the advantage of humanity. We see her endowed with a vocation which can be cultivated in her own home, without the risk of submission to any galling tyranny or more galling patronage…”