Can I make a confession right from the start? I’ve never really loved Grandma Moses’ art. The lack of accuracy on perspective and proportion gives me a little twitch every time I see it. (There, I said it. My mother is surely shaking her head now.) Even so, I’ve learned several important things from Grandma Moses. The most important thing I learned is that art is not about the skill of the artist.
People didn’t love Grandma Moses for her hyper realistic depictions of pre-WWI America. They loved her for her memories that created a nostalgia in them. This was certainly true for my grandmother-in-law, who will turn 100 years old this year. When we asked her about Grandma Moses’ art, she remembered it keenly and fondly. It brought a sincere smile to her face and made her remember.
For the most part, we love art when we connect with it and it produces an emotion in us. For example, I love Morisot’s painting, The Cradle, because I connect emotionally with her struggle. In her day, the art critics thought Morisot’s impressionist paintings looked sloppy and unfinished. I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder. How about you? What pieces of art do you connect with and love? Comment below!
Moses’ art is considered Folk Art, which doesn’t fit into any of the fine art genres. It’s a type of art that’s unconnected with the fine art world. Instead, it usually springs up in isolated communities and cultures, reflecting their unique values and customs. As you can imagine, it varies widely from place to place, but always gives you a good feel for the culture. It would be a lot of fun to do a whole series of folk art projects as part of a study of different cultures… someday soon I’ll work on that!
Why People Loved Grandma Moses
As I mentioned, people didn’t love Grandma Moses for her preciseness. They loved her because she helped them remember. Think about the timeline- she started painting at 78 years old in 1938. As her paintings became popular, America was entering WWII and people were separated from family. Even as the soldiers returned from WWII, they often didn’t return to their old town and their extended family. Instead, soldiers went to college on the GI bill and America turned its focus to the new “Nuclear Family.” The 1950’s looked very different from the late 1800s when Grandma Moses was young. She painted her memories from her childhood- not current day. In fact, she was very careful to never include technology like telephone poles in her paintings, because she was recording life from a different century. All this helped people connect with their past in a tangible way.
People also loved Moses’ public image. She was an unpretentious- yet spunky- little grandma who was a rancher’s wife. She was filled with optimism and energy through her 80s and 90s. It inspired people to see someone start a new career at 78 years old! It’s really fascinating to me how important an artist’s public image is in selling their paintings while they’re still alive. It makes me wonder, if Vincent Van Gogh had been a little less weird, (cutting off his ear and all) would he have died a millionaire?
The Grandma Moses Art Project
For our week studying Grandma Moses, we’re going to record some memories like she did. We’ll have the students draw a memory and color it in. Grandma Moses painted her pictures, but I’ve never found our 30-minute time frame to allow for both drawing and painting. So instead, we will use markers, which give a great Grandma-Moses-look. Of course, I usually make erasable colored pencils available too because some students get frustrated using a medium they can’t erase. In the example you see here, I used exactly what I plan to supply for the students: Crayola washable markers and Crayola erasable colored pencils.
In terms of perspective and proportions, Moses’ paintings become less realistic later in her career. So, as we draw, we’ll be focusing on loosening up and enjoying the process of remembering. For some students this is fun and easy. For others, like me, it’s really difficult to loosen up. It’s easy, as an artist, to get bogged down in trying to make things as realistic as possible. I’m sure it’s all about practice. In an art class I recently took, we had “gesturing” exercises where the instructor (whose art is quite detailed!) would give us 5 seconds to draw a specific plant and capture its essence. Did you know Norman Rockwell took classes well into his career to help him loosen up his style too? It makes me feel a lot better to know that many artists have to practice drawing with less precision and detail. I tell you this so that if you end up with a student who is struggling, you can reassure them that it’s quite normal.