Art of the 20th Century


Art Styles in 20th century Art Map


Grandma Moses




Grandma Moses





If Moses took anecdotal vignettes from newspaper and magazine clippings, her painting technique was largely derived from her experiences with embroidery.

Like all women born in the days when store-bought clothes were a rare luxury, Moses had learned to sew in early childhood. Her first sustained pictorial efforts were, perhaps as a result, undertaken not with paint but with yarn. Even after Moses gave up making these embroidered "worsted" pictures, she tended to treat paint like yarn.

Perhaps one of the most salient aspects of working with yarn is that— unlike paint—yarn makes it impossible to blend colors. In order to achieve subtle gradations of hue, multicolored strands must be placed side by side. This way of working translated into what some have characterized as Moses' impressionistic handling of paint. In Hoosick Valley (From the Window), varied tones of green and yellow are set next to one another to evoke the interplay between parched meadows and verdant hills.

Moses also used paint texture in a manner that mimicked embroidery. Fenceposts are "stitched" into place, blossoming trees appear to be rendered in little knots of thread. Moses established a series of textural gradations, from flat expanses and isolated blocks of color to more intricate, multicolored configurations. Certain details were deliberately executed in raised paint in order to set them off from the background. Many of Moses' paintings, when viewed up close, are actually composites of abstract forms.

* * *



Grandma Moses was closely associated with Christmas, in part because for many years Hallmark issued a best-selling line of Moses Christmas cards and in part because that holiday—with its combination of wintry cheer, evergreen trees, and joyful celebration— mirrors many of Moses' own favorite preoccupations.

Like all her work, Moses' Christmas paintings drew directly from her own experiences. She remembered her first Christmas thus:

Christmas morning... I scrambled out of bed... Oh! how good things smelled. The living room and parlor were all decorated with evergreens around the doors and windows; everywhere was hemlock, mother's favorite evergreen. And the smell of hemlock and varnish has always been a favorite of mine ever since.

Then breakfast was ready, and while we were eating Lester spied a little China dog on the clock shelf. And it was marked William Lester Robertson, so it was his.

Then commenced the hunt for more toys. We found a small shepherd dog on the reservoir, marked Horace Greely Robertson.

But so far nothing for me.

Then I found another little short-legged dog marked Arthur M. Robertson.

Now as you know I felt pretty bad. And mother said it was too bad, as I had been a good girl, and for me to keep looking, which I did.

When the men came in for dinner, the hired man said he saw a lady looking out of the window at him behind the evergreens. And sure enough, there was Little Red Riding Hood, for Anna Mary Robertson.

* * *

Although many people think of apples as a New England commodity, J. A. Apple Butter Making is actually among a handful of paintings based on Moses' Virginia memories. The house in the picture is the Dudley Place, one of several farms the Moses family occupied as tenants during their years down South.

"Late summer was the time for apple butter making," Moses wrote in her autobiography. "The apple butter was considered a necessity."

To make apple butter, you take two barrels of sweet cider {you grind apples and make sweet cider first), then you put them on in a big brass kettle over afire out in the orchard and start it to boiling. You want three barrels of quartered apples, or snits, as they called them, with cores taken out, and then you commence to feed those in, and stirring and keeping that stirrer going. . . . Womenfolks would keep that going, feeding in all the apples until evening. Then the young folks would come in to start stirring. They'd have twoa boy and a girl—to take hold of the handle. They'd have a regular frolic all night out in the orchard.

Moses' personal recollections—parts of which read like recipes, others like social history—were mirrored in the content of her painting.


* * *

Those who know Grandma Moses' paintings only from reproductions often fail to realize how profoundly accurate were her representations of the natural environment. Indeed, it is her precise evocations of the rural landscape that bring her paintings to life and that to a large extent account for their enduring appeal.

This aspect of Moses' achievement is perhaps most readily demonstrated by her storm scenes, for here the various forces and colors of nature appear of necessity in exaggerated form. A Storm Is on the Water Now is one of the artist's most dramatic pictures. Compared to The Thunderstorm, it is a simple composition. However, by focusing on the terror of the two white horses, Moses has distilled and highlighted the impact of the raging torrent. A relatively limited palette further heightens the emotional effect.

* * *

While Moses' way of piecing together compositions was partly dictated by her sense of abstract design, the arrangements were always subordinated to the requirements of the landscape. As a substitute for academic perspective (which she had never learned), she had recourse not just to a progressive scheme of diminishing sizes, but also to coloristic indicators of space. She was quick to note such qualities as the pale blue of distant hills, or the tonal gradations of the sky. She translated phenomena observed from nature into veils of color and layers of pigment.

The Spring in Evening is notable for the way in which Moses captured both time of year and time of day. The rawness of the freshly plowed earth, the new growth on the hillside, and the lambent pink of the sunset are all rendered with a sure feel for color and a striking verisimilitude. Variations in the physical and tonal density of the paint create a series of transitions between the artist s anecdotal vignettes and the more complex hues of the landscape. The bold silhouette of the horses and the houses are spare, formal essences embedded in a network of paint. It is, however, the natural landscape that brings the whole to life.

* * *

The Thunderstorm poignantly illustrates how Grandma Moses managed to combine intensely evocative renditions of natural phenomena with dramatic anecdotal detail.

There are several levels of action in The Thunderstorm. Fierce storm clouds arc rapidly approaching over the mountains, and in the distance the trees have already begun to whip wildly in the wind. The artist's deployment of color to represent these events is extraordinarily acute: The parched yellows of a late summer meadow, the varied greens of the trees, and the shifting colors of the sky before the advancing torrent are all keenly observed.

In the foreground, Moses presents the human reaction to the oncoming threat. There is a mad rush to get the hay into the barn and, at middle distance, a black horse bolts in terror.

The girl in the yellow dress is frozen in mid-run, while strangely, behind her to the left, two other children seem oblivious to the commotion. The abstract forms used to render all the human and animal activity stand in sharp contrast to the impressionistic interplay of colors in the landscape elements of the composition. This juxtaposition of abstraction and realism was one of the principal cornerstones of the "Grandma Moses style."

* * *

A the title suggests, A Beautiful World represents Grandma Moses' view of ideal harmony between humankind and nature.

"I like pretty things the best, Moses once told an interviewer. "What's the use of painting a picture if it isn't something nice? So I think real hard till I think of something real pretty, and then I paint it. I like to paint old-time) things, historical landmarks of long ago, bridges, mills, and hostelries, those old-time homes, there are a few left, and they are going fast. I do them all from memory, most of them are daydreams, as it were.

So much twentieth-century painting has been difficult and pessimistic that some have a tendency to dismiss Moses vision as simplistic. In fact, though, there has been much art throughout history that is accessible and optimistic. All art is in some sense an affirmation of life—an offering of the human spirit, however downtrodden, as proof that our thoughts and feelings are ever precious and sometimes beautiful. This is the essence of Grandma Moses' genius.


* * *

Moses was basically a landscape painter, but certain memories and themes demanded an indoor setting. She herself knew this, and some of her patrons encouraged her to expand her repertoire to include interiors. The subject, however, did not come easily to her.

"I tried that interior but did not like it, so I erased it," she noted on one occasion. "That don't [sic] seem to be in my line. I like to paint something that leads me on and on into the unknown, something that I want to see away on beyond. Well, maybe I try again."

Despite her difficulties with the subject, Moses did paint a number of striking interiors. Without the landscape to anchor the scene and provide an element of realism, her interiors rely almost wholly on the artist's command of abstract form and patterning. These qualities are used to maximum advantage in The Quilting Bee, wherein the colors and forms of the large quilt and the elaborate table setting play off neatly against the bright clothing of the numerous bustling characters. Still, Moses could not resist adding a bit of nature beyond the tall, uncurtained windows.



Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy