Grandma Moses captured rural America on canvas

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COLUMBUS – A major art retrospective of Anna Mary Robertson – “Grandma” Moses – one of the most popular artists in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s tours at the Columbus Museum of Art, the only Midwest venue, from May 10 through July 28.

Drawn from public and private collections in the United States and Japan, 87 of her most important works will be assembled.

The works were selected by Jane Kallir, co-director of the Gallerie St. Etienne in New York and the foremost authority on the artist. It was her grandfather, Otto Kallir, who was key in Moses’ “discovery” and subsequent success from 1940 on.

The artist. An elderly farmer and homemaker from upstate New York, Grandma Moses (1860-1961), first came to public attention in 1940, at age 80, as part of a general burst of appreciation for self-taught art.

However, as interest declined for dozens of other artists who were discovered more or less simultaneously, Moses went on to even wider renown – featured on the covers of TIME and LIFE magazines, in the then-infant medium of television, in film, in best-selling books and on millions of greeting cards.

Like Norman Rockwell, an artist she knew and with whom she is often compared, Grandma Moses occupies an anomalous position at the nexus of folk art, “high art” and popular culture.

Roots on the farm. Anna Mary Robertson was born Sept. 7, 1860, on a farm in upstate New York, one of a family of 10 children. At the age of 27, she married a “hired man,” Thomas Salmon Moses, and the couple established themselves on a farm in Virginia.

The Moses family spent nearly two decades in Virginia, during which time Anna Mary gave birth to 10 children, five of whom died in infancy. In 1905, the couple returned to New York and settled in Eagle Bridge, not far from Anna Mary’s birthplace. Here, her children grew into adulthood and, in 1927, her husband Thomas died.

Needlework came first. Often, during her younger days as a wife and mother, Anna Mary had been creative in her home using housepaint, for example to decorate a fireboard – and her earliest works utilized embroidery rather than paint. Her embroidered pictures were much admired by friends and relatives, so when arthritis made it painful to wield a needle, her sister suggested that it might be easier to paint.

It was this pivotal suggestion that spurred Grandma Moses’ painting career in her late 70s.

‘Naive’ artist. Grandma Moses is usually characterized as a “folk” or “naive” artist, terms reserved for those who have never received formal training in art (later coined “outsider art”).

She first gained broader recognition when an amateur art collector, Louis J. Caldor, saw her works in a Hoosick Falls, N.Y., drugstore window. He not only purchased all of the works on display but, in 1939, convinced the Museum of Modem Art to include Moses in a members-only show of contemporary folk painting.

The following year, Caldor met independent gallery owner Otto Kallir, who agreed to mount a one-woman exhibition in his Galerie St. Etienne. Moses’ first show, What a farmwife painted, opened Oct. 9, 1940, to favorable reviews.

Charmed equally by her down-home personality, her biography and her paintings, the post war mass media became transfixed by the artist, and she eventually developed an enormous international following. Yet Moses remained unaffected by all the attention and ever true to her rural origins.

When Grandma Moses died Dec. 13, 1961, at 101, she had been a regular news feature for more than two decades. She had completed over 1600 works of art.

The exhibition. The exhibition is divided into five groups. The first section explores the painter’s initial artistic evolution, from relatively conventional beginnings copying popular prints, to invention of her own unique style. The three central portions of the presentation – “Work and Happiness,” “Place and Nature,” and “Play and Celebration” – examine the artist’s most important reoccurring themes: profound respect for the American work ethic; sensitivity to local lore, the changing seasons and weather; and a love of fun and festivity.

Though Moses only began painting at an advanced age, her exceptional longevity gave her a career of more than 20 years, and the final section of the show charts her continuing development over time. The exhibition concludes with her last finished painting, Rainbow, done when the artist was over 100.

About the museum. The Columbus Museum of Art, 480 E. Broad St., Columbus, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and until 8:30 p.m. every Thursday.

Admission to Grandma Moses in the 21st Century is included in the price of admission: $6 for adults; $4 for seniors and students 6 and over; and free for members and children 5 and under.

For additional information, call the Museum’s 24-hour information line at 614-221-4848 or visit www.columbusmuseum.org.

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