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.

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.