Grandma Moses / by Jason Alden

Point of view is what we first encounter when we see a painting. Where are we? Where were we placed by the painter? Do we share the same vantage point as the artist? Most often, yes.

Mother and Child (Alice and Olivia) 1967, Alice Neel

Mother and Child (Alice and Olivia) 1967, Alice Neel

The Breakfast Room 1931 Pierre Bonnard

The Breakfast Room 1931 Pierre Bonnard

..but sometimes, no.

A Young Painter in His Studio, 1629, Rembrandt

A Young Painter in His Studio, 1629, Rembrandt

When I draw with others, I often place my viewpoint behind and a bit above, to see us drawing together. In this way I can free the drawing to include more than what my physical eyes can see. It also allows me to imagine how we might look to another.

The expanded, elevated viewpoint has been used throughout art history to hold weddings, politics, nature, war, community.

For Grandma Moses, it held memory.

Get Out the Sleigh 1960

Get Out the Sleigh 1960

I had known about Grandma Moses peripherally while growing up. She was tucked into all kinds of places: calendars, postcards, waiting room prints, ubiquitous and undemanding. I didn’t pay her paintings much mind until 10 years ago at River Gallery School when I saw a big book of hers on the shelf. It was the definitive volume by Otto Kallir, the pioneering art dealer who first brought Anna’s work to the public through his Galerie St Etienne in New York City. I was impressed by her directness with paint, the diversity of shape, color and pattern and her natural intelligence for organizing a picture. She had found a way to paint that was straightforward, absorbing and lively. People could learn from her. I often shared her paintings with students as a way to say, “Maybe this doesn’t have to be so difficult!”

For This Is the Fall of the Year, date?

For This Is the Fall of the Year, date?

Anna Mary Robertson was born in 1860 in Greenwich, New York, a year before Abraham Lincoln became President. She loved her childhood, playing with her brothers and sisters around her parents’ farm, learning sewing from her mother and making small landscapes with pressed grape and berry juice. Her life was long, with many responsibilities and it wasn’t until 1935 that Anna began to paint in earnest. She had been working from the age of 12, cooking, farming, cleaning and raising children with her husband Thomas Salmon Moses. “I had always wanted to paint” she said. “ I just didn’t have time until now.” She was 75 and arthritis had made the physical work of the farm impossible and her needlework (“worsted”) pictures were increasingly difficult. Her husband had passed away and she lived with her daughter and grandchildren. Oil painting became an obvious and enjoyable choice and she wasted no time about it.

Grandpa’s House, 1951

Grandpa’s House, 1951

“I paint down,” she said. “ From the sky, then the mountains, then the hills, then the houses, then the cattle, then the people.” She painted what she loved to remember and her technique ran behind, stumbled and played alongside her vision. Grandma Moses paintings called into question technique itself. What was technique if not the willingness to paint directly and with attention to the character of things?

The scenes in Grandma Moses’ paintings are large, friendly and strangely impersonal. The people are characterized by activity more than by personal identity. There is a diffusion of care across the surface with all parts being equally attended to. This may have been an inheritance from her “worsted” needlework pictures where every aspect of the picture, from a tree to a fence to a patch of cloud, had to be depicted with the same loop by loop effort.

Mt Nebo on the Hill

Mt Nebo on the Hill

This broad and equal view also feels knit into the difficulties and uncertainties of rural life in the 1900’s. This was before antibiotics and death would frequently visit families and communities. Five of Anna Mary’s ten children did not survive past infancy. Well being was directly tied to physical labor and the vicissitudes of weather and crops. Perhaps a dispersal of care was a psychological necessity to help manage the hardship and grief of life.

The Oaken Bucket

The Oaken Bucket

Grandma Moses was purposeful in her optimism. There is a happy industry in her pictures with no difference in tone between work and play. Large skies provide space for mountains and hills. Their shapes are shared and firmed up into houses and barns, settled and watchful, like grandparents. The people are simple and engaged with their work and with each other.

Grandma Moses Childhood Home, 1946

Grandma Moses Childhood Home, 1946

Her paintings are cleared of strife or the unknown. When asked in her interview with Edward R Murrow why, if she was a religious person, she didn’t paint about the Bible or God she replied, “I think we should paint what we know and not paint what we don’t know about. We shouldn’t paint about guesswork.” In this way, Grandma Moses was a traditionalist and not a seeker. Her hundreds of paintings were distillations of generational values, shored up against the telephone wires, motor cars and looming industrialization of the 20th century. She was a wonderful artist. If she had chosen to also weave the difficulty of the world into the innocence of these tableaus, she may have become brilliant. Grandma Moses died in 1961 at the age of 101 in Hoosick falls, NY. She was perhaps the most well known American painter of her time. Governor Rockefeller declared September 7th to be Grandma Moses Day.

Rainbow, 1961 Grandma Moses’ last painting

Rainbow, 1961 Grandma Moses’ last painting