GRANDMA MOSES’ art displays a mastery of historical perspective, if not always the other kind

“I had always wanted to paint,” writes Anna Mary RobertSon Moses, “but I just didn’t have time until I was seventy-six.” Grandma Moses has been in my mind all month because I recently started drawing lessons. For me, learning to draw has been a dream deferred for about 30 years, but as a fan of Grandma Moses, I feel I have all the time in the world.

My patient teacher started me off on the mandatory drawing, in Kerala, of a coconut tree leaning over a river in a botanically incorrect curve. I am grateful for her attention, because in this out-of-the-way place her very existence is a miracle. Grandma Moses, who lived in the farm lands of upstate New York, was self-taught. She first made her pictures in embroidery and then moved on to oils. I received Grandma Moses In The 21st Century for my birthday about seven years ago. It contains 87 colour plates (a small sample of her 1,500 landscapes) and essays by five art scholars that examine the artist’s life and times.

Moses’ style goes under various names in the vocabulary of art history. It has been considered primitive, naive, folk, Regionalist, memory painting, popular, and commercial. Jane Kallir writes here that in a newly patriotic, post-war America, Grandma Moses’ work had a strong nostalgic appeal. To European critics, it was the refreshing antithesis of soulless American capitalism. In either case, Kallir writes, it carried the fundamental American value of optimism.

Some of the paintings have the endearing smudginess of pictures from Young World. Slices of bread look just like coffee mugs, and the houses sometimes tilt into the ground. On the other hand, the landscapes are satisfying in their specificity: Moses does not paint trees, she paints dogwood, maple, flowering cherry, spruce, birch, weeping willow.

The artist writes self-deprecatingly, “If I didn’t start painting, I would have raised chickens.” But her art was more than recreational. She painted from what Roger Cardinal in his essay here calls a “documentary impulse”. The paintings are an archive, recording occasional events as well as the perennial rhythms of a “vanishing scene”, as one essayist puts it. They show a mastery of historical perspective, if not always the other kind. From them we understand what an American farm family actually did during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

They cook, bake, tap trees for syrup, hang laundry, make apple butter, shoe horses, roof barns, make soap, wash sheep, make candles, cut logs, auction goods and move house. To an industrial society, the busy figures in Moses’ rolling landscapes recalled the pioneer virtues of thrift, hard work and self-sufficiency.

To me, the stone boundary walls, the swells and valleys of the land, the winding river, the churches, fields and barns all recall the perennial rhythms of the landscape beyond my own fence. Perhaps one day a woman with hands gnarled from ploughing and reaping, herding and milking, boiling and pickling, will stop to record this vanishing scene.

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