Grandma Moses may have captured the world’s imagination with her colorful images, but she wasn’t the only member of the family who knew how to paint.
Her great-grandson Will Moses, who lives in the Washington County home where Anna Mary Robertson Moses spent much of her life, has kept alive the family’s passion for producing colorful folk art.
His success comes more from the influence of his grandfather, Forrest Moses, than “Grandma,” he said.
“It was Grandma’s son, Forrest, my grandfather, who really inspired me to paint,” said Moses from his painting studio at the family homestead in the small community of Eagle Bridge.
“Did I emulate my grandfather? Yes, and did he emulate Grandma? I think he did. So there is this progression, this style of painting that people associate with Grandma Moses and there’s no question I was influenced by it. That’s Grandma’s mark in history. She created this naive kind of country art that was different than anything that came before it.”
Grandma Moses was born in Greenwich in 1860 and, after having lived the life of a farmer’s wife — her husband died in 1927 — she became a successful artist at the age of 75.
Her death in 1961 at the age of 101 and her long life were documented in a lengthy New York Times obituary, and even the U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, released a statement mourning her passing.
“I was just 4 or 5 when she passed away, but I remember her,” said Will Moses. “She was the grandmother figure and everybody called her Grandma. I think she kind of dressed the part. She always had her hair up in a bun, she wore these little gold glasses and she was always wearing long dresses. She looked just what a grandmother was supposed to look like.”
The look was authentic, according to Moses, but Grandma also realized the value of good public relations.
“She got really popular in the early 1950s, and it’s my sense that she really enjoyed that popularity,” he said.
“She truly enjoyed the attention. As talented as she was, a lot of her popularity was because of her story. She was the right person at the right time. In a large measure, it was the Cold War politics, and it was her being a grandmother, apple pie and virtue all rolled into one, that made her popular as much as her work.”
Her style, sometimes referred to as “primitive” or “simple,” is what Moses reproduces in his oil paintings, children’s books, puzzles and holiday stationery.
At times that style has come under attack from some critics, but Moses pays little attention to it.
“To be honest with you, all I’ve ever done is try to make a living,” he said. “If somebody likes what I do, wonderful. If they don’t, I can live with that. Grandma always had her detractors and her supporters. Some people like to say that it’s the elites of the art world that don’t care for her art and kind of pooh-poohed it, and that the common people loved it. I don’t know if that’s true because there are art critics who really like her work.”
Included in that group is Paul S. D’Ambrosio, president and chief executive officer at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown. The museum has two Grandma Moses paintings in its collection.
“She was very famous in the 1940s and ’50s, but it’s been more recently that her art has started to be taken more seriously,” said D’Ambrosio.
“Her fame is derived from her authenticity and ‘Americanness,’ which was perfect for the nation during the grips of the Depression and then the Cold War. She was a great cultural statement about the U.S. and its way of life and values.”
And, adds D’Ambrosio, there is no mistaking her talent.
“She really was a very fine painter,” he said. “Her sense of balance, composition and color were just amazing, and she wonderfully managed to capture the everyday life of the people around her with honesty and charm because she was one of them. She really inspired a generation of Sunday painters, and none of them are her equal.”
As for Will Moses’s work, D’Ambrosio hasn’t seen any of it in person, but he has heard a number of good reviews.
“We don’t own any of his works, but from what I understand he’s an excellent painter,” said D’Ambrosio. “It seems Will has really taken up the mantle for that style of painting.”
It’s a style that still sells pretty well at the Bennington Museum in Vermont, which has about 50 Grandma Moses paintings in its collection.
“She is probably still the biggest draw we have here at the museum,” said Callie Stewart, collections manager at the museum. “She is still quite popular. There’s something about her work that just draws people in, and her story — a woman who started painting when she was elderly and with no training becomes incredibly famous — is a very appealing story.”
If Grandma hadn’t been so productive late in life and lived to 101, it might have been her son Forrest who became the famous one. He was born in 1893 and died in 1974.
“In the summer, my grandfather farmed, and in the winter he had some time to paint,” said Moses, who was one of four brothers in the family.
“My brothers and I and my cousins would ride our bikes over to his studio and see all these cast of characters come through the doors. It was more like a deer camp than an art studio. Men would come in and smoke cigars, cuss, tell their stories and we thought it was really cool to sit around and listen.”
But he also learned about painting.
“One of my grandfather’s driving ambitions was to have all of his grandchildren paint a painting,” remembered Moses. “I think everyone did the obligatory painting and I stuck with it a little bit. I don’t know if I would say I was encouraged. But I had always enjoyed it, and when I was 18 I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought that I had some ability, and I thought I knew what I was doing.”
Instead of going on to college, Moses, now 58, worked on the family farm, had a few odd jobs and began to paint in the hopes of becoming successful commercially.
“I thought about going to college, but I was never a big fan of structured education, and I think there are a lot of teachers out there who would agree with that,” he said, smiling.
“[College] just wasn’t for me, and painting was what I thought I wanted to do. I’m the first one to say I’ve been very lucky. I’ve made a pretty decent life with it.”
There were times, however, that he did question his career choice.
“I still think about getting a real job,” said Moses, flashing another smile. “Every day I look at the newspaper and check out the help wanted adds to see if there’s something else I’d rather do. Haven’t seen anything yet.”
A graduate of Cambridge High School, Moses and his wife, Sharon, have raised three children. A volunteer emergency medical technician and critical care instructor with the Cambridge Valley Rescue Squad, Moses produces about 25 paintings a year at his Mt. Nebo Gallery.
Visitors can purchase a number of different items at the studio, which is open to the public weekdays from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. There are no Grandma Moses items on sale, but the great-grandson is happy to talk about the woman or her work with anyone who stops by.
“There’s obviously a huge connection with our paintings, but I think Grandma painted from a woman’s perspective,” said Moses.
“She also had this almost applique quality to her work. Her experience with needlework and quilting come through with the color she used. It’s like she was sorting through an old bag of clothes and rags, but instead of quilting them, she painted them.”
Grandma got her ideas, according to Moses, from looking at her own landscape as well as pictures from newspapers and magazines.
“Some of the characters were too big, some were too small, and the trees might not have the right perspective,” he said.
“If she felt like she couldn’t draw a team of horses the way she wanted, she would trace it right onto the board. Whether it was too big or too small didn’t matter. I don’t think she was consciously trying to create something different or new. She was just doing something from her heart the best way she knew how. My grandfather carried that on, and I think I also carry that on to a degree.”