Part of the appeal of Grandma Moses is that her life story reads like the script from a Frank Capra film — the story of good regular folk experiencing miracles of fame and fortune.
The tale begins in 1938. Far removed from the ominous rumblings of war from across the Atlantic, on an early spring day, an art collector by the name of Louis Caldor was driving his motorcar through the countryside of upstate New York. He stopped in the town of Hoosick Falls, pulling in to Thomas’s Drugstore to take refreshment.
Inside hung several paintings — pastorals and landscapes in oil. The artist, Caldor was told, was a 77-year-old local widow named Anna Mary Robertson Moses, who had recently taken up painting because her arthritic hands could no longer embroider. Caldor was informed that Moses had 10 more paintings at her farmhouse in nearby Eagle Bridge, if he was interested. Caldor was very interested, and made arrangements to visit the Moses home the following day. When word reached Moses, she was delighted but anxious, as she had not 10 paintings, but only nine. The story goes that Moses took out a pair of scissors and carefully cut one of her larger canvases down the center, transforming it into two smaller paintings so as not to disappoint her new patron.
Thanks to Caldor’s connections in New York City, the following year three of her paintings appeared in a show at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1940, the respected gallerist Otto Kallir gave her first solo exhibition, titled somewhat dowdily “What a Farmwife Painted,” at his Galerie St. Etienne. The same gallery has lent many of the 62 pictures now being shown in a major Grandma Moses retrospective at the Bunkamura Museum in Shibuya.
The exhibition is divided into five sections — one covering Moses’ needlework and the other four focused on the seasons, for although she painted for almost 25 years (she died in 1961 at the age of 101) and showed strong development in her use of color, her subject matter remained fairly constant.
She painted what she saw and what she remembered — the people and scenes of the gently rolling New England countryside. Plowing and planting in spring; flowers and trees in full bloom in summer; children flying kites and the fleeting, carefree feeling that buzzes through the warm air of a perfect July afternoon. The autumn paintings see the changing of the leaves on the deciduous trees of the region, and of course harvest celebrations.
The winter pictures have a fairytale quality, as the hills and dales are blanketed in snow, dotted with horse-drawn sleighs and brightlydressed children and their toboggans. The few interior paintings depict cheerful family feasts at Christmas-time. Other pictures, no doubt done for children, see Santa Claus and his reindeer flying over smoking chimneys in the silvery night sky.
As she was entirely self-taught, Moses’ pictures did not develop the sophistication of detail or perspective found in, say, a Bruegel. But her delightful renditions perfectly suit the simple life of rural North America of the period, and that is the charm that has earned her such wide acclaim and made her among the most loved and most celebrated folk artists of the 20th century in the United States.
It was truly a quirk of fate that took a 77-year-old grandmother — in a matter of several years — from a New England hamlet to the Museum of Modern Art and some of Europe’s best galleries and museums. Moses painted over 1,000 pictures, and a very good selection of them are here in Tokyo for a brief visit. There are also a number of archival photographs of Moses at work, and a short film about Moses’ life, which includes grainy black-and-white footage of the artist with crackly recordings of her speaking about her art.
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