Grandma Moses

Queen of Christmas: the wondrous snowy landscapes that made Grandma Moses as big as Jackson Pollock

THEGUARDIAN.COM
Queen of Christmas: the wondrous snowy landscapes that made Grandma Moses as big as Jackson Pollock.

As soon as I saw this article, shared by the Bennington Museum in Bennington, VT, I knew I needed to tell her story, my story, and the museum’s story.

Let’s start with Grandma Moses, her story and very interesting life, told by THEGUARDIAN:

The upstate New York farmer took up painting at 76 and was soon a star, her ‘old-timey’ scenes proving perfect for stamps, curtains and Christmas cards – saving her from a life of raising chickens.

I had always wanted to paint,” Anna Mary Robertson Moses once said. “But I just didn’t have time – until I was 76.” The artist, who became known as Grandma Moses, was hailed for her wide-eyed, childlike wonder which she channelled into paintings of often wintry landscapes depicting scenes of daily life.

Born in 1860, the third of 10 children raised on a farm in upstate New York, Moses became a servant for a wealthy neighbouring farmhouse at the age of 12, carrying out domestic duties such as cooking, sewing and cleaning. After 13 years of this, she married Thomas Salmon Moses and the couple went on to have 10 children – with only five surviving past infancy. Never wealthy, they settled on farms in Virginia and later in upstate New York, where Moses made crisps on the side for extra income.

In 1927, after Thomas died from a heart attack, their son Forrest was tasked with helping his mother look after the farm. When Moses later moved in with her daughter, she adopted the monikers Mother Moses or Grandma Moses, and her life began to change. Although she was a lifelong embroiderer, who had spent her evenings making quilts for friends and relatives, she developed arthritis at the age of 76. It was the mid-1930s and Moses turned instead to painting, after her sister suggested that a brush might be easier to hold than a needle. “If I didn’t start painting,” Moses once joked, “I would have raised chickens.”

Painting from her vivid imagination – without even an easel and using her bedroom or kitchen as a studio – Moses drew on the joyous memories of her long life. She employed simple, formulaic methods, painting from the top down. “First the sky,” she said, “then the mountains, then the hills, then the trees, then the houses, then the cattle and then the people.” But most of all, painting was a way to recreate the “old-timey” country landscapes of her past. Moses would paint for five hours straight. “I’ll get an inspiration,” she said, “and start painting; then I’ll forget everything, everything except how things used to be and how to paint it so people will know how we used to live.”

Her output was prolific and she soon found success. Within a matter of years, after showing her paintings alongside her homemade jam at the local county fair, her work was “discovered” by a prominent New York collector, who saw it in a drugstore window. Gallery representation soon followed and, by 1939, Moses had featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, affirming her status as a household name.

Did 25 paintings at the age of 100 … Grandma Moses.
Did 25 paintings at the age of 100 … Grandma Moses. Photograph: PhotoQuest/Getty Images

With her shows breaking attendance records, Moses was soon exhibiting in more than 30 states and in countries across Europe. Branching out into commercial markets, her paintings appeared on US stamps, jam jars, curtains and greetings cards, particularly Christmas ones. Hallmark alone sold 16 million Moses cards in 1947. She was even thought to be more popular than Jackson Pollock. When Life magazine published an article about Pollock in 1949, Moses was the reason it had to write its subhead as a question: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

Having dedicated most of her life to household chores, Moses spent the following three decades producing over 1,500 paintings, until her death at 101. An astonishing 25 were painted after she turned 100. When Moses painted landscapes in different seasons, she kept her trademark style, omitting any signs of industrialisation and instead focusing on the natural landscape.

This gave the results a timeless feel but it is her snow-filled scenes – filled with glitter for a shimmering effect – that evoke the delights of winter, with their powdered-lined roofs, burning chimneys, white speckled trees, children in mismatched hats and scarves sledging or helping to carry logs. Even the looming grey sky in 1946’s Out for Christmas Trees appears more inviting than ominous.

Moses’s paintings are celebrations of life. Viewing them almost like a diary, she said: “I have written my life in small sketches, a little today, a little yesterday, as I thought of it, as I remembered all the things from childhood on through the years, good ones and unpleasant ones, that is how they come and that is how we have to take them.”

In 1960, as she celebrated turning 100, the governor of New York declared 7 September, her birthday, Grandma Moses Day – and Life magazine put her on the cover.

Personally, I like the December 28, 1953 TIME magazine cover.

What is it about winter?  Do you see the background?  The article focuses on her winter paintings, too.

They are special.  Irving Berlin had one.  I have seen them – up close.  She had a secret- very fine white glitter.  You can only see it looking closely at the painting.  It made a difference.

I saw these winter paintings at the Bennington Museum.  Did you know the museum is the primary ‘keeper’ of Grandma Moses art?  Their display is wonderful.  They also have artifacts, such as her brushes, paints, table, chair, and a jar of her fine white glitter.  They have an interview running on a screen with Grandma Moses and Edward R. Murrow.  It is priceless.

My childhood was spent staring at a Grandma Moses painting with a hill and a gray barn.  It hung in the breakfast room, so every breakfast and lunch I looked at that painting.  It spoke to me.  Grandma Moses speaks to many people.  When Hubby and I moved to Massachusetts we were anxious to see the Grandma Moses exhibit.  Well, I couldn’t wait!  There is nothing better than ‘live’, from music to art.  I was in heaven.  I felt like a child.

The Bennington Museum is special to me in two ways, because that first visit was about Grandma Moses (expected), and also about their Haitian quilts exhibit (unexpected), the beginning of Milly the Quilter.  For new bloggers, Milly the Quilter had an amazing 10-year span in my classroom.  Our quilts are on big-time display.  More importantly, Milly was like Grandma Moses.  She understood and treasured the simple things in life, and turned them into an adventure.

Thank you Grandma Moses and Milly.  You get it.  You have made a huge contribution to this world.  The children in my class will forever remember.

Jennie

P.S. Grandma Moses’s first childhood memory was driving into town on a horse and buggy.  She saw black drapings everywhere and people crying.  Abraham Lincoln had died.  She was five years old.

About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I am highlighted in the the new edition of Jim Trelease's bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at both the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital.
This entry was posted in art, Imagination, Inspiration, museums, quilting, The Arts, wonder and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

72 Responses to Grandma Moses

  1. beth says:

    I love her story and love your personal connection –

  2. Dan Antion says:

    Thanks for sharing this personal view of a wonderful woman, Jennie.

  3. Your love for Grandma Moses is obvious and genuine. Thanks for sharing your link with her.

  4. quiall says:

    She took a complex world and made it simple and welcoming.

  5. Ritu says:

    Oh how lovely 🤗

  6. Darlene says:

    Thanks so much. I love this history lesson. Although I have always been familiar with Grandma Moses and her amazing work, I didn’t know much about her story. She is such a great example of never being too old to follow your dreams!

  7. Jennie says:

    Hi Darlene, I’m so glad you enjoyed this. She is an inspiration! The winter painting never appeared on my post, so I have just added it. Worth going back for a look!

  8. Jennie, thanks for educating me more about Grandma Moses. I didn’t know much of her background/story and it was very interesting. I also appreciated hearing your personal connection to her. I can identify with remembering certain artwork that was part of my growing up as well (especially snow-filled scenes)!

    • Jennie says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed learning about her, Bruce. She started painting at 76, so there’s hope for me writing my teaching stories and memoirs.😀 My grandmother was a wonderful influence (her life and character was much like Grandma Moses), and she had a diverse collection of art hanging on her walls, from modern to Norman Rockwell. If I knew how to include a photo in this comment (technology is not my strength), it would be ‘Leaving Home’ by Gilbert Gaul.

  9. joylennick says:

    Thank you so much, Jennie. Fascinating! I had heard of Grandma Moses, but knew little about her. What an incredible, resilient, talented, hard-working woman! Fancy surviving losing half of your family too… Have a wonderful festive season and a healthy, happy New Year. Hugs xx Joy Lennick

    • Jennie says:

      She really was, Joy. What a fascinating life. My grandmother was the same way, and she survived her whole family, two husbands, and both of her children. Never an unkind or sorrowful word. She was a gem, like Grandma Moses. Lucky me! My best to you this holiday season!🎄 🥰

  10. beetleypete says:

    I love the painting, Jennie. Naive Art is one of my favourite artistic styles. Thanks for filling in the back story of that fascinating lady.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Jennie says:

      I’m so glad, Pete. She was one tough cookie, wrapped in kindness and a love for the simple life. Her naive art was a big welcome after WWII when people wanted to remember ‘the good life’. Best to you.

  11. cindy knoke says:

    Love this Jennie! Thank you for posting and Happy Holidays! 👼🎅🌟🦌🎄

  12. Array says:

    Oh what a delight to read this history Jennie and learn about Grandma Moses….. Beautiful … And 101 of age… Showing to me she just LOVED doing what she did…. 🙂
    Thank you so much for sharing ❤

  13. frenchc1955 says:

    Jennie, this is wonderful.

  14. petespringerauthor says:

    “I didn’t have time until I was 76.”
    That line alone should prevent any of us from complaining about trivial problems.

  15. Kazimiblues says:

    Nice to share her story, good article

  16. You are having a great personal connection to this wonderful and so intriguing story. xx Michael

  17. dgkaye says:

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful story about Grandma Moses, and your wonderful connection. ❤

  18. I love Americana art and her collection is probably what started it all with me. I have a few favorite modern Americana artist favorites and wonder if she was there influence and inspiration? I have some Wysocki, and one Linda Nelson Stocks work but, oh, how wonderful it would be to have a Grandma Moses painting!

    Thank you for sharing her story.

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