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Art of the 20th Century

 



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Grandma Moses



 

 

 


 
 

 

 


GRANDMA MOSES

(1860-1961)
 
 

Anna Mary Robertson Moses, better known as Grandma Moses, is arguably the greatest American folk painter of the twentieth century. She is without a doubt the most famous such artist, and possibly one of the most famous and accomplished women of all time. Moses was also the first artist to become a media superstar and the first American painter to achieve a significant international reputation in the post-World War II era. Nevertheless, despite (or perhaps because of) these impressive achievements, and a biography that could not have been more perfect had it been crafted by a Hollywood screenwriter, Moses remains something of an anomaly within the context of modern art history.
Moses' extreme fame seemingly lifted her out of her original folk art context, creating a perceptual gap between her generation of self-taught artists and the nineteenth-century folk tradition from which they all descended. Today, as the significance of twentieth-century self-taught art is being reappraised, Moses continues to stand apart, an outsider even within this genre of outsiders. Nor, despite admirable strength of character and integrity of vision, has Moses been heralded by feminist art historians, possibly because they are put off by the quaintness of the artist's public persona. Moses the artist is, however, no anomaly, even if the extraordinary circumstances of her late-life career are unique. Her work belongs to a long and rich tradition of American folk art, as exemplified both in this century and before.

To understand Grandma Moses, in fact, one must place her work not only within the context of the American folk tradition, but within that of the modernist mainstream, which over the course of this century has periodically picked out bits from the folk tradition to use for its own ends. Prior to the Renaissance, little distinction was made between high art and low art, fine art and craft. Over the course of the ensuing centuries, however, an elitist tradition developed which privileged the work of certain artists over that of the common folk. This elitist tradition was codified and disseminated through various institutions of patronage and education. Folk art, then, was a catch-all category for the myriad forms of creation that fell outside the system of high-art patronage and education.

During the first century of its existence, the United States was woefully lacking in high-art institutions. The first American museums were not founded until the 1870s, and artists who wanted to learn European academic ways had to travel across the Atlantic. As a result, America by the mid nineteenth century had spawned a significant class of native folk painters. Largely or completely self-taught, these artists combined elements of crafts and fine art traditions. Often, they began by doing decorative work such as sign or carriage painting. They absorbed the rudiments of academic style second hand, through engravings, or if they were lucky, apprenticed briefly with more formally educated colleagues. Much of the output of these so-called limners consisted of portraits, for which there was a constant demand in the days before photography. Other pictorial records—of ships, farms, or prized livestock —were less popular though not uncommon.

The advent of photography and commercial lithography in the second half of the nineteenth century effectively destroyed the market for these homespun portraitists. Yet, paradoxically, the concomitant proliferation of commercially disseminated imagery stimulated the creativity of amateur self-taught painters. Art schools, museums, and art supply stores furthered this trend.

Grandma Moses, born Anna Mary Robertson on September 7, 1860, was a member of that watershed generation of amateur painters who came of age after the heyday of the professional limner, but long before the penetration of everyday life by the modern media. Living her life on remote farms, she remained physically and intellectually beyond the reach of mainstream culture. When she began to paint, she did so for pleasure, and with little thought or realistic hope of significant acclaim or remuneration.

Like most of the self-taught painters who would come to wider attention in the first half of the twentieth century, Moses was prevented by-economic circumstance from pursuing a lifelong interest in art. Although as a child she loved to draw "lambscapes," and a teacher once praised her maps, Moses was taught to see such pursuits as frivolous. Instead, a strict mother inculcated in her the skills needed to survive on a farm. Even routine schooling was a luxury often dispensed with: sewing, washing, making soap, and cooking were the sorts of tasks a girl of Anna Man's social station had to master. Her taste for pretty things found expression principally in "fancy work, decorative sewing, hooked rugs, and, whenever she could find an excuse, in painted embellishments on utilitarian objects such as trays, jugs, or even birthday cakes.

Russell King Robertson, Anna Mary's father, had a flax mill and farm in Greenwich, a small community in upstate New York about thirty miles northwest of Bennington, Vermont. Whereas Anna Mary's five brothers could help their father at the mill and on the farm, she and her four sisters were increasingly seen to be a burden. At the tender age of twelve, Anna Mary went to work as a "hired girl on a neighboring farm, helping a wealthier family with the household chores. She was to pursue this sort of work for the next fifteen years until, at the age of 27, she met a hired man, Thomas Salmon Moses, whom she married.

The year was 1887, and Thomas had been told that the Reconstruction-era South was a land of opportunity for Yankees such as himself. Within hours of their wedding, the couple was on a train headed for North Carolina, where Thomas had secured a job managing a horse ranch. However, he and his bride never made it beyond Staunton, Virginia. Here they stopped for the night and were persuaded to take over as tenants on a local farm. Anna Mary immediately fell in love with the beautiful Shenandoah Valley—her chilly New York State home (albeit mountainous) would forever after seem a "swamp" by comparison. Life was not always easy, though. Anna Mary, who believed in pulling her weight, bought a cow with her own savings and supplemented the family income by churning butter. Later, when times were tough, she made and sold potato chips. She gave birth to ten children, of whom only five survived infancy. Still, the family prospered, eventually earning enough to but their own farm.

Anna Mary Moses, known by then as "Mother Moses" to main of her neighbors, would happily have spent the rest of her life in Virginia, but Thomas was homesick. In 1905, he persuaded his wife to return North. "I don't think a bit has changed since we left," Anna Mary commented, "the gates are hanging on one hinge since I went away." She and Thomas bought a farm in Eagle Bridge, not far from her birthplace. They named it "Mount Nebo"—prophetically, after the Biblical mountain where Moses disappeared. It was on this farm, in 1927, that Thomas Moses died of a heart attack.

Anna Moses was not one to sit idle. Though all her children were grown, there was still plenty of work to be done on the farm. Later she would joke, "If I didn't start painting, I would have raised chickens." Or, upon further reflection, "I would rent a room in the city some place and give pancake suppers." In 1932, Moses went to Bennington to take care of her daughter Anna, who was suffering from tuberculosis. It was Anna who showed her mother a picture, embroidered in yarn, and challenged her to duplicate it. So Anna Man- Robertson Moses began stitching what she called "worsted" pictures and giving them away to anyone who'd have them. When Moses complained that arthritis made it hard for her to hold a needle, her sister Celestia suggested she paint instead. In this casual manner, the career of Grandma Moses began.

Of course, Moses had painted from time to time before. Her earliest datable painting is a large fireboard, clone in 1918. Ever practical, she painted this landscape only because, in redoing the parlor, she did not have sufficient wallpaper to cover the board that, in summer, is placed in front of the dormant fireplace. Once, she saved a bit of canvas from an old threshing machine cover to paint on. Moses recalled that Thomas had admired her artwork, and she liked to think his spirit was watching over her, offering approval if not outright guidance. At any rate, a few years after her daughter Anna died, Moses returned to Eagle Bridge and started painting in earnest.

Soon Moses had more paintings than she could realistically make use of. She sent some along to the Cambridge country fair, along with her canned fruits and jams. "1 won a prize for my fruit and jam," she sardonically noted, "but no pictures." Here Moses' painting career might have foundered. For, much as she loved art, Anna Man' Robertson Moses was above all a sensible woman, and to pursue art for art's sake alone would, by and by, have come to seem a petty indulgence. But, in 1936 or 1937, Caroline Thomas, the wile of the druggist in the neighboring village of Hoosick Falls, invited Moses to contribute to a women's exchange she was organizing.

Moses' paintings sat in the drugstore window, gathering dust next to crafts and other objects created by local homemakers. for several years. Then, during Easter week of 1938, a New York City collector named Louis Caldor chanced through town. Caldor traveled regularly in connection with his job as an engineer for the New York City water department, and he was in the habit of seeking out native artistic "finds." The paintings in the drugstore window caught his eye; he asked to see more and ended up Inning the whole lot. He also got the artists name and address and set off to meet her in person.

Moses' family clearly thought Caldor was crazy when he told their Grandma he'd make her famous. And indeed, for the next few years, it seemed the family was right. Caldor brought his trove of Moses paintings to New York City and began doggedly making the rounds of museums and galleries. Even those who admired the work lost interest when they heard the artist's age. Turning 78 in 1938, Moses hardly seemed worth the effort and expense involved in mounting an exhibition; her life expectancy was such that most dealers felt they would never reap a profit on their initial investment. Still, Caldor persisted, and in 1939 he had his first limited success: The collector Sidney Janis selected three Moses paintings for inclusion in a private viewing at the Museum of Modem Art. However, this exhibition, which was open only to Museum members, had no immediate impact.

Finally, in 1940, Caldor stopped at the Galerie St. Etienne. Recently founded by Otto Kallir, a Viennese emigre, the Galerie St. Etienne specialized in modern Austrian masters such as Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele. But Kallir, like many of the pioneers who championed modernism in the pivotal decades between the two world wars, was also interested in the work of self-taught painters. In Europe, this trend had been established when Picasso "adopted" the painting toll collector Henri Rousseau, and was furthered by the published writings of the Russian-born Expressionist Wassily Kandinsky. Essentially, these artists and their various followers believed that the work of self-taught artists was purer and more original than that of trained painters. In tandem with a concerted effort to renounce academic tradition, the contemporary avant-garde looked to the example of those who, for whatever reason, had been denied formal training.

This passion for the "naive or "primitive, which originated in Europe before World War I, first took root in America after that war. Initiated, here as in Europe, by artists, the hunt for art untrammeled by formal convention at first focused on the creations of nineteenth-century limners and artisans. But by 1927, the quest for a living exemplar of the genre— an American Rousseau, as it were—bore fruit. At the urging of the artist Andrew Dasburg, the jury of the Carnegie International agreed to accept the work of a common house painter, John Kane, for inclusion in that prestigious annual exhibition.

Kane's sudden good fortune—fostered by such art-world luminaries as Duncan Phillips and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, and derided as a fraud by the tabloid press and a number of disgruntled trained artists—paved the way for the emergence of other kindred talents. By 1938, the Museum of Modern Art had enough for a whole show, "Masters of Popular Painting." Included, in addition to Kane and Rousseau, was a recent discovery, the brilliant African-American painter Horace Pippin. The Museums founding director, Alfred Barr, was bold enough to state that the history of modern art—and his museum's mandate—consisted of three distinct but equal strands: Surrealism, abstraction, and self-taught art.

It was within this rather august context that Anna Mary Robertson Moses made her public debut at the Galerie St. Etienne in October 1940. Otto Kallir had titled the exhibition "What a Farmwife Painted," thinking that the artist's name, completely unknown, did not merit attention. It was only some months later that a journalist, interviewing friends in Eagle Bridge, came upon and then popularized the local nickname "Grandma Moses."

The St. Etienne exhibition, though well publicized and well attended, was only a modest success. What really got Moses' career rolling was a Thanksgiving Festival organized by Gimbels Department Store shortly after the St. Etienne show closed. A substantial group of paintings was reassembled at Gimbels, and the artist was invited to come to New York. In her little black hat and lace-collared dress, and accompanied by the proprietary Caroline Thomas, Moses (perhaps remembering her experiences at the country fair) delivered a forthright public address on her jams and preserved fruits. The hard-boiled New York press corps was delighted, and the legend of Grandma Moses was born.

Until this moment, there was nothing to distinguish Moses from the other self-taught painters, such as Kane, Pippin, and Morris Hirshfield, who had been discovered in the preceding decade or so. Yes, it was true that her style was different from that of the others, but then this is one of the hallmarks of contemporary folk art. Since self-taught artists, by definition, remain remote from academic tradition, they make up their own styles from scratch. This does not, of course, mean that such artists are completely uninfluenced: Kane and Rousseau went to museums and copied art books, and Moses collected magazine clippings and greeting cards from which she extracted figural vignettes. But each of these artists interpreted and integrated his or her respective source material in a personal manner, rather than conforming to predetermined pictorial or formal dictates.

Folk or self-taught art is a category largely defined in the negative: It is not academic, it is not mainstream. Folk art exists outside the boundaries of established artistic convention. Since most aesthetically inclined individuals tend to seek formal training, biographical circumstance plays a much larger role in defining folk art than it does in mainstream art, for it is circumstance that determines whether an artist will or will not be able to obtain training. In nineteenth-century America, the prevailing biographical circumstance was geography: Physical distance from academic institutions alone was sufficient to create a native class of folk painters. As the cultural climate improved, the prevailing circumstance separating folk artists from the norm became economic: Moses, Kane, Pippin, Hirshfield, and others of their generation simply could not afford the luxury of studying art. More recently, as mass communications have created a virtually unavoidable common visual environment, folk art has largely been defined by psycho-social circumstances. The so-called outsider artists who became popular in the 1980s tend to be severely marginalized, frequently institutionalized, or homeless.

What happened to Grandma Moses remains unequalled in the annals of folk art. To put it bluntly, she failed to remain in her place. The writer Roger Shattuck characterized Henri Rousseau as "an object lesson for modern art." In truth, all folk art has functioned as a kind of convenient object lesson, a place where mainstream artists could go to recharge their creative batteries. Over the course of this century, members of the avant-garde have regularly dipped into various aspects of folk iconography, reinterpreting "primitive" stylistic tropes in accordance with their own ends. Not only did this strategy often help trained artists arrive at new and innovative pictorial solutions, but these artists could proudly point to parallels between their work and that of the self-taught as proof of their own aesthetic purity. What the avant-garde mainstream could not and did not do was accord the self-taught artist respect on his or her own terms. Much as they might love folk art, modern artists and art historians almost never granted self-taught artists parity.

In defiance of this pervasive prejudice, Grandma Moses became a superstar. She did not do so willfully or suddenly, but she did so nonetheless. Her talk at Gimbels in 1940 brought a burst of publicity, and Moses was soon something of a local celebrity, but her renown was confined to New York State. She exhibited at a number of Upstate venues and began to be besieged by vacationers seeking artistic souvenirs. For some years, Moses resisted signing a formal contract with Kallir. believing she could manage matters herself. Finally; in 1944, frustrated by the seasonal nature of her tourist-oriented business and by difficulties in collecting payment from some of her customers, she agreed to be represented exclusively by the Galerie St. Etienne and the American British Art Center, whose director, Ala Story, had also become a steady buyer of Moses' work.

The events that established Moses as a national and then international celebrity followed in quick succession. Kallir and Story immediately launched a series of traveling exhibitions that would, over the ensuing two decades, bring Moses' work to more than thirty American states and ten European nations. In 1946, Kallir edited the first monograph on the artist, Grandma Moses: American Primitive, and oversaw the licensing of the first Moses Christmas cards. Both projects proved so successful that the following year the book was reprinted and the greeting card license taken over by Hallmark. In 1949, Moses traveled to Washington to receive a special award from President Truman. The next year, a documentary film on her life, photographed by Erica Anderson, directed by Jerome Hill, and with narration by Archibald MacLeish, was nominated for an Academy Award. Her autobiography, My Life's History, was published in 1952.

The dawning age of mass communications gave the public unprecedented access to Grandma Moses and her work. In addition to traveling exhibitions, books, and greeting cards, people could enjoy posters and even mural-sized reproductions, China plates, drapery fabrics, and a number of other licensed Moses products. By live-remote broadcast— then a technological marvel—Moses' voice was beamed out from her home in Eagle Bridge to the larger world. A rare use of color television was made to show Moses' paintings when she was interviewed by Edward R. Murrow in 1955. And Lillian Gish portrayed the artist in what may well have been the first televised "docudrama."

The rags-to-riches saga of the elderly painter captured the American imagination. Facing the harsh realities of the cold-war era, the public took heart in a real-life tale that seemed to prove the old adage, "It's never too late. The media seemingly never tired of repeating Moses fairy-tale story. In 1953, she was featured on the cover of Time magazine; in 1960, Life sent noted photographer Cornell Capa to do a cover story on the artist's 100th birthday. That birthday—declared "Grandma Moses Day" by New York's governor, Nelson Rockefeller—was celebrated almost like a holiday in the nation's press. The fanfare was repeated the following year, when Moses turned 101. Everyone rejoiced at the artist's longevity. Grandma Moses passed away several months after her 101st birthday, on December 13, 1961.

While Moses would never have achieved a comparable level of success without Otto Kallir's careful management, the artists spectacular late-life career was in large measure due to circumstances beyond the control of any one individual. Essentially, the Moses phenomenon consisted of three interwoven strands: the artist's downhome story, her art, and the peculiar exigencies of the early cold-war years. The importance of Moses' biography should neither be exaggerated nor underestimated. Starting with the Gimbels talk, people were charmed—even thrilled—to note that the artist was as simple and unaffected as her paintings. Both in her person and in her art, she evoked the vanished nineteenth century, a seemingly calmer and more innocent time.

Yet biography alone was not everything. Other old codgers could, after all, paint—and in fact did so, once Moses got the ball rolling. It seemed hardly a week went by without the discovery of a new "Grandpa Smith" or "Auntie Jones. "Yet none ever had the impact that Moses did. And although Moses' media appearances were, for their day, sensational, they were relatively infrequent by modern standards. She spent almost her entire twenty-one-year career undisturbed in Eagle Bridge. By and large, what the admiring public saw was not the artist, but her art.

The famous Moses style has been so often imitated that it has become difficult for people today to see the real thing with fresh eyes. Many assume that the appeal of Moses' work rests on a nostalgic evocation of nineteenth-century rural life, but the paintings themselves tell a rather different story. Moses' figural and scenic vignettes are so nearly abstract that they are capable of evoking the past in only the most symbolic sense. Her landscapes, however, arc portrayed with an accuracy that is very much of the present. There is thus a link between the past and the present in Moses' work that seems to secure the future. The message is that some things—the scent of summer on the winds of spring, the bite of the first snow in November—do not change. Moses inspired not nostalgic longing, but hope. Hers was a message that postwar America desperately needed to hear.

Moses' extreme popularity inevitably separated her from the ranks of other folk painters (such as Kane or Pippin) and their more circumscribed audience. Fame also separated her from the art-world elite that had championed folk art in its more obscure moments. Moses' comparatively realistic style was juxtaposed—both by her supporters and by her detractors— with the Abstract Expressionist movement concurrently in ascendancy After a controversial 1943 retrospective of the self-taught painter Morris Hirshfield nearly cost him his job, MOMA director Alfred Barr threw his lot in with the abstractionists and abandoned his support of folk art. The rest of the art-world elite followed suit.

For a number of decades, twentieth-century folk art went into a kind of eclipse. Some of folk art's staunchest supporters—including a significant faction at New York's Museum of American Folk Art—seriously maintained that folk art had died with the nineteenth century. Legitimate self-taught art. it was said, could not survive in a technological age. Folklorists and art historians then proceeded to split hairs over terminology with the folklorists contending that true folk art has a communal, utilitarian orientation that precludes the inclusion of any sort of autonomous painting. Moses, Kane, Pippin, and their like were defined out of existence.

Of course, one of the nice things about folk artists is that the real ones pay absolutely no attention to such theoretical squabbling. They simply go about their business, painting as they see fit. It was perhaps inevitable that mainstream critics would one day return to looking at such ad hoc artistic creations, which in truth never ceased to exist. Self-taught art has always stood as a powerful antidote to academic orthodoxy. And, as formalist abstraction itself acquired the rigid veneer of academic orthodoxy over the course of the postwar decades, folk art's appeal once again began to rise. The present boom in folk or "outsider" art has been furthered by the trend toward multiculturalism, which gives special attention to artists of diverse ethnic backgrounds, just as Moses once represented a popular alternative to the arcane doings of the Abstract Expressionists, today's "outsiders" are hailed for their relative accessibility. Elitism is momentarily on the out, populism is back in.

Curiously, none of this has had much effect on the reputation of Grandma Moses. The presently voguish "outsider" work is, after all, very different from hers. Living lives far more emotionally or intellectually marginalized than Moses, "outsiders are often inspired by extremely idiosyncratic personal visions. Few "outsiders" see themselves as artists in the sense that Moses did, or learn or develop consciously in the manner that she and her generation of folk artists did. Thus, though Moses remains tied to the counter-tradition of "the other" that has always favored self-taught art, she has no place among the current crop of "outsiders."

To understand Grandma Moses in context, then, one must return to her time and place. Were the circumstance of her fame to be removed, she would fit most comfortably with the other folk painters of that period, such as John Kane, Horace Pippin, and Morris Hirshfield. Fame is a strange commodity, and it is sometimes difficult to determine whether it is due more to luck or merit. Above all, perhaps, Moses' posthumous reputation has suffered from the fact that she was famous at a time when fame was considered unseemly for an artist—before Andy Warhol decreed that all of us would be entitled to our fifteen minutes.

Nonetheless, it is evident that Grandma Moses' fame endured far longer than fifteen minutes. From the first Galerie St. Etienne show in 1940 until her death in 1961, she enjoyed a career that was as lengthy and rich as that of many a younger artist. And while the cult of celebrity has naturally diminished since her death, her work has endured. Today, over fifty years after Moses first burst on the scene, it may safely be said that in her case, fame and greatness were one.
 

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CATCHING THE THANKSGIVING TURKEY
1943

 
 

Particularly in the early years of her career, Moses frequently chose subjects that were staples of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century illustration. Catching the turkey—part of the annual Thanksgiving ritual—was one such theme that Moses painted numerous times. Though she often repeated subjects, no two compositions were ever alike.

For her first monograph, Grandma Moses: American Primitive, the artist was asked to write commentary for forty favorite paintings. Of Catching the Thanksgiving Turkey, she wrote:

Why do we think we must have turkey for thankgiven.
Just becaus our Forefathers did, they had it becaus turkeys
were plentyfull, and they did not have other kinds of meat,
now we have abundance of other kinds of luxuries,
Poor Turkey, He has but one life to give to his country,

The spelling and punctuation in Moses' text, which was printed in a facsimile of her handwriting, were not altered for publication. This caused the artist grave embarrassment, as did the book's title. "One of the neighbors asked if it was so that I could not read or write, being a primitive," she noted in disgust. When Moses' autobiography was published some years later, the spelling and grammar were corrected in deference to her wishes, and the word "primitive" was dropped.
 

 

* * *
 
THE BURNING OF TROY IN 1862
1943

 
 

Troy, which lies across the Hudson River from Albany, New York, was the largest city near Grandma Moses' home in Eagle Bridge. Surviving documents suggest that, for a brief period before she married, the future artist did factory work in Troy.

A massive fire in Troy two years after Moses' birth clearly figured prominently in local lore. Moses cut out and saved a commemorative news clipping, published in 1939, and used it as the basis for a series of paintings. The artist's pencil notations on the clipping indicate how she proposed to modify the vignette. The Burning of Troy in 1862, the fifth version she did of the subject, is already quite far removed from the clipping.

Conventional illustration tends to focus on foreground or background, but seldom on both at once. Combining these two views was one hallmark of the "Grandma Moses" style. Thus, in The Burning of Troy Moses has considerably expanded the scene beyond the burning bridge, including more foreground as well as a detailed rendering of the city in the background.
 

 

Newspaper clipping of 1939 about the Great Fire of 1862
 

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SUGARING OFF
1943
 


Maple Sugaring - Early Spring in the Northern Woods.
1872
Lithograph
 

"Sugaring Off" was one of Grandma Moses' most popular themes, and evidently also one of the artist's personal favorites. Like many of her earliest subjects, it derived from popular illustration—in this case, a well-known Currier & Ives lithograph. Although Moses did at the very start of her career sometimes copy compositions verbatim, she never tried to duplicate this Currier & Ives print. Rather, from the start she freely combined elements from her primary source with vignettes from other sources and from her own imagination. Certain stock images do tend to recur in the "Sugaring Off" paintings, however, among them the burning cauldron, the mother pouring maple sugar on the snow (where it would harden into instant candy), the men with buckets, and the little "sugar house."

Sugaring Off dates from 1943, at the height of Grandma Moses' first truly mature style. She had by this point in her career gained formidable mastery of her medium. She was capable of rendering details with pristine clarity and of handling extremely complex compositions. Sugaring Off is notable for its vast assortment of disparate activities, arrayed in a preternaturally broad landscape. This opening up of the landscape into an almost square, quiltlike panoply of detail is one of the hallmarks of the "Grandma Moses style." As she matured further, however, Moses would revert to narrower horizontals, which required greater compression of detail.
 


* * *
 
CHECKERED HOUSE
1943
 
 

Like the Troy fire, the Checkered House was a local legend. Situated along the Cambridge Turnpike, it was an inn where stagecoach drivers had changed horses as far back as the eighteenth century. During the Revolutionary War, the inn served as General Baum's headquarters and field hospital. Its checkerboard front made the house a distinctive landmark that was remembered long after it burned in 1907.
Moses painted a number of versions of "Checkered House," in both winter and summer. When asked how she managed to come up with a new composition each time, she said she imagined the scene as if she were looking at it through a window. By then shifting her viewpoint slightly, she could cause the elements to fall into place differently.
 

 
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HOOSICK FALLS, NEW YORK, IN WINTER
1944
 
 

The Village of Hoosick Falls will always have a key place in the biography of Grandma Moses. It was here that her paintings were first discovered, sitting in Thomas' Drugstore window, and it is here that the artist is buried.

For Moses herself, however, the importance of Hoosick Falls lay not in its connection to her own career, but in the village's role in American history. Today Hoosick Falls, the closest real town to the Moses farmstead, is a sleepy hamlet, somewhat passed over by modern economic development. However, until the Great Depression, it was a bustling commercial center, its industrial potential bolstered by its situation at the confluence of the Hoosick and Walloomsack Rivers. Moses associated the area, hunting grounds of the Mohican Indian tribe, with the tales of James Fenimore Cooper. "Some say Natty Bumpo sleeps his sleep in an unknown grave in the village limits," she wrote.

Moses painted a number of versions of Hoosick Falls, showing the village in various seasons. Most follow the winding path of the Hoosick River, and may be based in part on old prints of the town. The bird's-eye view—encompassing more than would be visible from any single human vantage point—is, however, typical of Moses' unique approach.
 

 
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EARLY SPRINGTIME ON THE FARM
1945
 
 

The title Early Springtime on the Farm is an example of Moses' dry Yankee humor. The calendar may say it's spring, but in the North there is still plenty of snow on the ground.

Nonetheless, signs of a thaw are evident in the foreground of the painting, where a flock of geese waddles along on fresh turf. "These are the damp snow days," Moses wrote, "when we love to go to the woods and look for the first bloom of the trailing arbutus, which sometimes blooms beneath the snow, or gather the pussy willow. Those are the days of childhood."

Moses invariably recalled her childhood in idyllic terms:

Those were my happy days, free from care or worry; helping mother... sporting with my brothers, making rafts to float over the mill pond, roaming the wild woods, gathering flowers, and building air castles.

Yet the artist's autobiography is full of events that are far from blissful: the burning of her father's mill, storms so severe they almost wiped out the farm, and illnesses, today readily controllable, for which there was then no cure. Two of Moses' brothers and one sister did not live to adulthood. "We had to take the bitter with the sweet, always," she later wrote. "Mother was very matter-of-fact, and she said, 'As you are born, you must die,' and father took it that way too."

The tranquillity in Moses' art, then, does not come from denying unpleasant realities, but from making peace with them.
 

 
* * *
 
WASH DAY
1945
 
 

Many of Moses' earliest paintings had drawn on traditional American themes, such as "Catching the Thanksgiving Turkey" or "Sugaring Off". Moses chose these subjects because they reflected her personal experience, and it was this experience, as well as her keen observation of the surrounding landscape, that gave new life to these relatively dated images. As she grew more artistically confident, however, she began to craft paintings that were based more directly and completely on her own memories. Wash Day is such an image.

Moses recalled that the painting was inspired by a poem she had learned in school as a child. Some seventy years later, she could still recite it by heart:
 

Oh Monday was our washing day,

and while the clothes were drying,

a wind came whistling through the line

and set them all a-flying.

I saw the shirts and petticoats

go flying off like witches.

I lost (oh bitterly I wept),

I lost my Sunday breeches.

I saw them flying through the air,

alas too late to save them.

A hole was in their ample part,

as if an imp had worn them.
 

 
 

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