San Diego Museum of Art

photo: John Hazeltine

Balboa Park, San Diego, CA



Grandma Moses in the 21st Century

June 30 - August 26, 2001


On June 30, 2001, a major retrospective exhibition of paintings by one of the most popular artists in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s, Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma Moses), opens at the San Diego Museum of Art. This large selection of her most important paintings charts the evolution of her style, providing visitors with the opportunity to reexamine her art, both on its own merits and in the context of modern art history. (left: Rainbow, 1961, Private collection, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York, © 2001, Grandma Moses Properties, New York)

"Grandma Moses is one the great icons among 20th century folk artists, and it is with great pleasure that the San Diego Museum of Art now makes her lively paintings available and accessible to our community," says the Museum's executive director, Don Bacigalupi. "As we begin the 21st century, this is an ideal opportunity to reevaluate both the career and art of Grandma Moses, a personality with whom so many Americans can identify."

The Exhibition

This exhibition breaks new scholarly ground in reexamining Moses' most important paintings from a contemporary viewpoint, while charting her stylistic development. In order to provide a deeper understanding of Moses' art, several key issues are addressed. For instance, the exhibition looks at the degrees to which Moses relied on both memory and personal observation in rendering her subjects. Also considered is the relationship of Moses' work to the tradition of American folk art as it existed in the early years of the 20th century, as well as to the contemporaneous Regionalist movement. In addition, the exhibition explores whether her extreme popularity affected her status as a "serious" artist and our view of her legitimacy as a folk artist. Whether her gender played a role in her popularity while possibly hindering her acceptance by the art-world elite is also addressed. (left: Sugaring Off, 1943, Private collection, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York, © 2001, Grandma Moses Properties, New York)

The works in the exhibition were selected by guest curator Jane Kallir, co-director of the Galerie St. Etienne. Kallir is recognized internationally as the foremost authority on the artist, and it was her grandfather, Otto Kallir, who was key in Moses' "discovery" and subsequent popular success from 1940 on. Kallir has organized the works into five principal groupings, book-ended by sections devoted respectively to Moses' "Early Work" and "Late Work and Old-Age Style. " The first section explores the painter's initial artistic evolution, from relatively conventional beginnings copying popular prints, to the invention of her own unique style. The three central portions of the presentation - entitled "Work and Happiness," "Place and Nature," and "Play and Celebration" - examine the artist's most important recurring themes: profound respect for the American work ethic, sensitivity to local lore, the changing seasons and local weather, and a love of fun and festivity. (left: The Old Checkered House, 1944, Seiji Togo Memorial, Yasuda Kasai Museum of Art, Tokyo, © 2001, Grandma Moses Properties, New York)

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

The Artist

An elderly farmer and homemaker from upstate New York, Grandma Moses first came to public attention in 1940, at the age of 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. She was 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, her friend and colleague, Grandma Moses occupies an anomalous position at the nexus of folk art, "high art," and popular culture. (left: Joy Ride, 1953, Private collection, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York, © 2001, Grandma Moses Properties, New York)

Anna Mary Robertson was born on September 7, 1860, on a farm in upstate New York, one of a family of ten children. At the age of twenty-seven, 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 ten 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 to adulthood and, in 1927, her husband Thomas died.

Often, during her younger days as a wife and mother, Anna Mary decorated elements of her home using house paint, such as a fireboard. Many of her other early creations were executed in embroidery, which were much admired by friends and relatives. However, when arthritis made it too painful for Moses' 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 seventies.

Grandma Moses is usually characterized as a "folk" or "naïve" artist, terms reserved for those who have never received formal training in art (later termed "outsider art"). She first gained broader recognition when an amateur art collector, Louis J. Caldor, saw her works in a Hoosick Falls, NY, drugstore window. He not only purchased all of the works on display but, in 1939, convinced the Museum of Modern 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 at his Galerie St. Etienne. Moses' first show, What a Farmwife Painted, opened on October 9, 1940, to favorable reviews. (left: Black Horses, 1942, Private collection, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York, © 2001, Grandma Moses Properties, New York)

Charmed equally by her down-home personality, her biography and her paintings, the postwar 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 simple rural origins. When Grandma Moses died on December 13, 1961, at the age of 101, she had been a regular news feature for more than two decades. She had completed over 1600 works of art. (left: Out for Christmas Trees, 1946, Private collection, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York, © 2001, Grandma Moses Properties, New York)

Other Museums on National Tour


See our earlier article, Grandma Moses in the 21st Century (3/7/01), which relates to a national tour exhibition at the Orlando Museum of Art.

rev. 4/26/01

Read more about the San Diego Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine.

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11

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