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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Anna Mary Robertson Moses

Anna Mary Robertson Moses,
December, 1953, the matron
saint of Christmas art.
When we think of Christmas we summon up a host of beautiful images--Nativities, Santas, greenery, carolers, even the hustle and bustle of gaily decorated department stores filled with harried last-minute shoppers. On a quieter note, the holiday brings to mind the solemn stillness of deep, blue, snowy winter nights--silent nights. It brings to mind lovely New England snowscapes, of busy little New Hampshire villages teeming with children, playing in the snow, sled-riding, skating, and the musical jingle bells on a one-horse open sleigh. It brings to mind Anna Mary Robertson Moses. She lived in upstate New York and embroidered pictures with yarn until neuritis and failing eyesight forced her to give up needlework in favor of painting.

Catching the Turkey, 1940, Anna Mary Robertson Moses, one of her earlier pieces.
Her exposure as an artist was limited for many years to local county fairs where her paintings were displayed next to her canned preserves. She was discovered by collectors in the late 1930's, already well into her seventies, and though she painted her fun-filled interiors and busy rural landscapes depicting New England life in all seasons, it is her winter scenes that seem to make her the matron saint of Christmas artists. Today the work of Grandma Moses can be seen most profusely in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, Virginia, set amongst the elegant splendor of the colonial capital of the state, which is especially beautiful during the Christmas Season. Folk art, like Christmas, does not apply to a particular time period of long ago, but rather it is always present.

County Fair, 1950, Anna Mary Robertson Moses
We're all familiar with the work of Anna Mary Robertson Moses. If not, maybe we at least know the work of "Grandma" Moses. We see and read about her art in our art history books or in the massive "coffee table" books based upon some editor's conception of how her works have traditionally been viewed. Except for the occasional traveling exhibit, for many, these ungainly tomes are the closest they will ever come to actually seeing great art. We know her as the 101-year-old great grandmother who didn't start painting until the age of 80 when she could no longer see well enough to embroider. We know her as a folk artist painting quaint rural scenes as she remembered them, without regard for the niceties of linear perspective (or any other kind for that matter) and without much concern for volume, scale, shading, or ambient color, but with an incredible eye for design, narrative detail, and visual textures. We know her as a creative dynamo that turned out more than 1,600 original oil paintings in the last twenty years of her life. Most of us couldn't do that in a lifetime of work.

Grandma Moses insisted, "Painting is not important.
The important thing is keeping busy."
This is the stuff legends are made of, the image proclaimed in the pretentious coffee table art galleries overflowing with gorgeous color reproductions printed on expensive glossy pages designed to tempt the reader to rip them out and frame them. Yet such works are bound to the ancient wisdom that a picture is worth a thousand words. But sometimes, a few thousand words might be a nice substitute for some of the pictures. Words are important if we are to go beyond the legend and probe the more esoteric elements of her work as well. For example, most of us are unaware that Anna Moses created her paintings using a kind of "assembly line" procedure. She hated to waste paint (decades of near poverty had taught her not to waste anything). So, she did the blue skies of several paintings at a time. Then she'd do the green areas in each of them, or the snow, or whatever, for the same reason. Painting extreme detail in oils naturally also meant waiting for paint to dry. Her granddaughter recalls her having as many as a dozen paintings at a time "in progress."

The Quilting Bee, 1940, Anna Mary Robertson Moses
Also, few of us are aware that Grandma Moses was an impressionist. She never studied their work, of course. In fact, she never saw an impressionist painting until she'd been painting for years. Never one to be impolite, her reaction was, "They sure used up a lot of paint." But her unfamiliarity with art history hadn't kept her from using many of the same divided brush stroke techniques and visual color mixing methods used by Impressionists. Keep in mind that, born in 1860, she was of the same generation as many of the Impressionists; she'd just had better things to do at the time. Her color techniques were born not from painting but from needlework, where often she did not have the luxury of using the exact color desired and thus found it necessary to "mix" colors by juxtaposing stitches of two or more different colored threads to obtain the desired hue. Close examination of her paintings often reveals a similar propensity.

Sugaring Off, 1955 greeting card,
Anna Mary Robertson Moses
Despite the colorful coffee table books, most of us are similarly unaware of just how popular Grandma Moses' paintings have been. One year, during the 1950s, a greeting card company printed 16 million copies of her work, and this at a time when the international art world was embracing the non-representational work of Abstract Expressionism as being the only type of painting appropriate to a superpower nation. Critics at the time scoffed at her work as belonging to pop culture. Today, Grandma Moses' work rises above "pop" even the "folk" label and is seen in the landscape tradition of the Hudson River School while some of her originals have been known to bring as much as $100,000.


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