The Swan Song of Grandma Moses

(Left,) Winter, Grandma Moses, Fair Use, (Right), Grandma Moses on the cover of Time, Image Credit, Boris Chaliapin

Imagine you are in your 80’s, and widowed. Having spent a lifetime of hard labor since the age of 12, and having born 10 children, you suddenly come face to face with the fact that you cannot physically do what you were passionate about your whole life. Your children are grown and have lives of their own. What to do with those wits you still have about you?

It’s hardly over, and there is no reason for an older human being to ever become invisible or irrelevant in our society. Why? Because they have a secret weapon that will eclipse any youth related endeavor or life skill — it’s called a story. Not the kind of story that just pops out of your head in a moment of inspiration, but one that can take up to 80 long, rough years of living to tell.

Mary Ann Robertson Moses, 1860–1961, or “Grandma Moses” as she was famously known, began a new venture after a lifetime of farming with her husband in Virginia and New York State. She took up needlework as some women of her time did, but arthritis made it difficult for her, and a friend suggested that she take up painting.

Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap, 1565 Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Public Domain

She knew nothing of the old masters, although some of her work reminds me of some of the rural landscapes of Dutch painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1525–1569. Her influences, if any, came from Nathaniel Currier, 1813–1888, and James Merritt Ives, 1824–1895.

Central Park Winter, The Skating Pond, lithograph by Currier and Ives, 1862, Public Domain

She lived in a little corner of New York State and didn’t have a clue about Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning, or about the era of Modern Art flourishing in nearby New York City. She didn’t much care. She once said that if she hadn’t taken up painting she would have raised chickens.

She created scenes of rural life in her little village: customs, harvest, holidays, seasonal activities and local events. She painted the historical and cultural landscape of her region in the most honest and straightforward way — perspective was almost always that of the bird flying over, so that all could be seen and documented, much like the Bruegel landscapes. Sugaring Off sold for $1.2 million in 2006.

Sugaring Off, Grandma Moses, 1943, Fair Use

She was placed in the categories of Primitive and Naïve by critics and art historians, but she simply looked back, inside, and around, in her own personal landscape, to find her vision, not to the giants in New York City.

Who has time for pretension and following when they have come so near to the end of the road? No time for studying those who went before, or what is being done now, or going to Paris or Amsterdam to find inspiration — you have a lifetime to record in your work, a story to tell, and not much left to go. No time left to follow others — your path has been forged.

She painted till she was 101.