Published: November 18, 2003
The touring retrospective demonstrated, however, that the wide appeal of her art has never worn off. Mounted more than four decades after her death, the exhibition allowed her oeuvre to be appreciated apart from her mystique. It looked awfully good in diverse museum settings, confirming her place as an American original with appeal to people of all ages.
“Grandma Moses in the 21st Century” was astutely assembled by Kallir, granddaughter of Otto Kallir, the artist’s dealer. Originally organized and circulated by Art Services International of Alexandria, Va., it opened at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and has traveled to the San Diego Museum of Art, Orlando Museum of Art, Columbus Museum of Art and Portland Art Museum.
The Wadsworth’s in-house curators are Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, deputy director, and Maura Heffner, director of exhibitions and programs. The Hartford showing is sponsored by Lincoln Financial Group Foundation.
The extensive exhibition catalog, with useful essays, focuses on the merit of Moses’s output, albeit in the context of her unique artistic personality.
The humble, busy first 75 years of Grandma Moses’s life offered few hints that she would become an artistic superstar. Born in 1860, she was one of ten children in a farm family living near the upstate New York village of Greenwich.
Anna Mary Robertson grew up helping her mother with chores and exploring the countryside with her brothers. Blessed with a keen memory, she remembered seeing area buildings draped in black bunting following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
Her father, an amateur artist, encouraged her youthful drawings. “Joy Ride,” 1953, recalls happy times in Moses’s childhood when, after a heavy snowfall, her father would hitch the horses to a big red sleigh and take the family on trips through the drifts.
At the age of 12, after attending school off and on, she left home to work as a “hired girl” on area farms. Replicating her mother’s diligence and work ethic, she came to take great pride in her homemaking skills. Memories of those experiences, with a variety of rural families, inspired many of her paintings.
At the age of 27, Anna Mary married a god-fearing “hired man” named Thomas Salmon Moses. Seeking better opportunities, they became tenant farmers on land near Staunton, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley. During nearly two decades there she gave birth to ten children, five of whom died in infancy. Meanwhile, Moses worked hard with her husband to make their farms successes.
Persevering through family illnesses, frequent moves to other farms, hard work and other vicissitudes of rural life, Moses came to love that verdant area of Virginia. In later pictures she recreated the flower-filled meadows, myriad farm activities, meandering rivers and dramatic mountains that made the region special to her. Among the highlights: “Shenandoah Valley, South Branch,” circa 1938, and “Shenandoah Valley, 1861 (News of the Battle),” circa 1938.
“Apple Butter Making,” 1947, set near Staunton, is a wonderfully evocative view of people engaged in an annual ritual on the farm. Details such as folks gathering and preparing apples and tending the open fire under kettles of boiling apples reflect Moses’s familiarity with the scene. The figure in the left foreground may be the artist herself.
In 1905, at the urging of her homesick husband, they headed back to New York State, settling on a farm near the tiny hamlet of Eagle Bridge, not far from Anna Mary’s birthplace and the Vermont border. Naming the place “Mount Nebo,” after the biblical mountain where Moses disappeared, she raised her children there to adulthood and labored actively to support the farm. An early worsted-yarn picture, “Mt Nebo on the Hill,” 1940 or earlier, depicts the farm site.
Today, the substantial house and barn are the residence and workplace of her great-grandson, Will Moses, a prolific folk artist in his own right, whose art is highly reminiscent of Grandma’s work. Across Grandma Moses Road the more modern ranch house where she lived in her final years remains in the family. She is buried on a woodsy hillside in a cemetery in nearby Hoosick Falls.
Most of Moses’s works depict a bygone world of stability and tradition, even though in fact she moved often during her life. In “Moving Day on the Farm,” 1951, she recalled how family, friends and neighbors pitched in to help rural folk relocate.
When her husband died in 1927, for the first time since childhood the 67-year-old grandmother had some time on her hands. She began to embroider pictures with worsted yarn, which were much admired by the relatives and friends to whom she gave them.
In her early 70s, when arthritis made it increasingly difficult for her to wield a needle, Moses adopted a suggestion that she try painting in oil. At first she copied images from Currier & Ives reproductions, newspaper and magazine clippings, greeting cards and calendar illustrations, to which she invariably added her own special touches. Hampered by lack of training, as well as proper brushes and paint, her early efforts were crude and awkward, yet somehow surprisingly accomplished.
Eventually she painted what she knew best: memories of everyday farm life, such as “Haying Time,” 1945, “Turkeys,” 1958, “Pumpkins,” 1959, and “Horseshoeing,” 1960. She also created views of rural communal and holiday activities, like “Halloween,” 1955, and “Down The Chimney He Goes,” 1960, and landscapes of the countryside around Eagle Bridge, which nestled on the western slope of Vermont’s Green Mountains as they roll over the New York border.
Moses tried to sell her little pictures at charity bazaars and county fairs, but in contrast to her prize-winning preserves, she found few buyers for her artwork. She displayed some paintings in the front window of Thomas’s Drugstore in Hoosick Falls. They were spotted there in 1938 by New York art collector Louis J. Caldor, who promptly bought a bunch of works and subsequently brought Moses to the attention of gallery owner Otto Kallir in Manhattan.
Moses’s public debut came at the age of 79 in 1940 with a one-woman show “What a Farm Wife Painted,” at Kallir’s Galerie St Etienne. Of the 34 paintings exhibited, priced between $20 and $250, only three were sold, but the exhibition attracted favorable reviews.
During a subsequent display at Gimbel’s department store, the tiny old lady wearing a lace-collared dress and little black hat gave a homey little talk that charmed the blasé New York press corps and brought her further public attention. As Jane Kallir puts it, “At that moment the legend of Grandma Moses — in which art and personality became tightly intertwined — was born.”
Moses, who made no secret of her dislike for New York City, returned to Eagle Bridge, grumbling about the intrusive publicity and her categorization as an unschooled primitive artist. She was consistently encouraged by Caldor and Kallir, who provided improved painting supplies and urged her to paint what she liked.
Grandma Moses approached her painting with the same practical, no-nonsense manner in which she had lived her life, regarding it as a way to make ends meet and please others. “If I didn’t start painting, I would have raised chickens,” the octogenarian artist observed. “I would never sit back in a rocking chair waiting for someone to help me.”
Prompted by all the publicity, Moses was inundated with requests for paintings. The demand for her work led to increased output and larger paintings. The farmer’s widow turned a hobby into a full-time occupation. As she painted more frequently, she refined her technique and style in remarkable ways. Within a few years of her debut, she stopped copying Currier & Ives compositions, evolving pictures that featured closeup vignettes of people and animals amidst panoramic landscapes.
By the time of her first show in 1940, Grandma had created some 50 embroidered pictures and 100 small paintings. Thereafter, since she spent little time on preliminary drawings, she worked quickly, turning out an astounding 1,600 works in her two-decade career. It was an enormous output for any artist, much less one in her 80s and 90s.
Lacking training in how to depict figures and structures, she continued to use magazine clippings and greeting card images for inspiration. Manipulating cutouts to fit her compositional schemes, she outlined basic shapes in pencil, usually on the pressed wood panels she favored. Much of her work was done on an Eighteenth Century tilt-top table on which she had painted rural scenes.
Asked once what subject she liked best to paint, Moses replied, “Well, I guess it would be the sugarin’-off scenes. I know them so well.” Thus, the process of tapping maple trees for sap to make maple syrup and candy was an oft-depicted activity. “Sugaring Off,” 1943, offers a frenetic wintry scene filled with boiling cauldrons, men toting wooden buckets, horses at work, children carousing and a little “sugar house” set against a snowy, expansive vista.
Moses’s landscapes were detailed and natural in appearance, enlivened with instinctive color harmonies. The way in which she interwove layers of pigment with multiple brush strokes seems derived from her embroidery experience. The resulting, nostalgic images of country life combined simplified vignettes with complex landscape backgrounds that reflected nature’s changing moods.
Anyone who has visited that area of New York State will recall the prevailing sense of tranquility conveyed by its mosaic of fields dotted with farmsteads and pastures, picture-postcard villages, winding rivers spanned by covered bridges, forested hills and valleys and distant outlines of the Green Mountains. Since these scenic attributes of what the artist dubbed her “homeland” were captured in so many paintings, it is little wonder that we call it “Grandma Moses Country.” A standout is “Hoosick River Summer,” 1952.
She was basically a painter of the out of doors, but because certain memories and subjects required indoor settings, she took on the challenge of portraying interior scenes. In “The Quilting Bee,” 1950, and “Old Times,” 1957, the colors and form of the large quilt and cooking activities, respectively, and elaborate table settings play off against the vivid clothing of numerous, active figures. Although lacking the depth and technical refinement of her landscapes, these somewhat primitive compositions superbly evoke the ambience of rural socializing.
Traveling exhibitions took Moses’s work all over the country and overseas. She won prizes, saw her work acquired by famous people and appeared on the covers of national magazines. Emerging in a postwar American preoccupied with the threat of nuclear war and tensions of the Cold War, her art conveyed the nation’s traditional optimism and hope, along with its sturdy rural values — and the message that it was never too late to undertake great things in life.
Moses’s work was widely circulated via Christmas and greeting cards, posters, china plates, drapery fabrics and other licensed Moses properties. She reached “a larger public than any living artist before her,” says Kallir.
Painting in a more fluid, expressive style toward the end, Moses completed her last painting, “Rainbow,” 1961, in her 101st year. With a glorious rainbow arching over her beloved countryside and buildings, people and cattle in the foreground filling out an expansive scene of purposeful activity and peaceful living, this culminating work was characteristic of her life — and art. “Rainbow,” says Kallir, “is a direct outpouring of the artist’s spirit as well as a technical tour de force of color and texture.”
Fortunately for us, this farmer’s widow, starting at an improbably advanced age, distilled a lifetime of experiences in memorable art that captured the spirit and psyche of America. Bequeathing a lasting legacy of hope, optimism and confidence in her native land, she was, in truth, one-of-a-kind, a unique figure in the history of America and its art.
The 263-page exhibition catalog, written by Kallir and with contributions by Roger Cardinal, Michael D. Hall, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan and Judith E. Stein, seeks, as Kallir puts it, to tackle “the myth and reality of Grandma Moses from various angles.”
There are 117 color reproductions, 57 black and white images, a detailed biographical chronology and a selected bibliography. The softcover edition by Art Services International sells for $39.95. The hardcover edition by Yale University Press sells for $65.
There are several places in the northeast where Moses works can be seen in large doses. The Bennington Museum, which loaned works to the current show, the Grandma Moses Schoolhouse, adjacent to the Bennington Museum, and the Shelburne Museum.
“Grandma Moses in the 21st Century” is on view through February 15. The Wadsworth Atheneum is at 600 Main Street. For information, 860 278-2670, or www.wadsworthatheneum.org.
Despite their appalling state of disrepair, the chairs were clearly extraordinary. “The joinery was a cut above that on any Boston chair of this period that I had seen,” recollects Mussey, who subsequently coined the term “Boston Regency” to describe their design.
Scholarly interest in the Seymours dates to the discovery, in the mid-1920s, of two labeled tambour secretaries, a signature Seymour form. In 1959, Stoneman, a labor lawyer and avid collector of Seymour furniture, published the first book-length treatise on the craftsmen, John and Thomas Seymour: Cabinetmakers in Boston, 1794-1816.He followed with a supplement in 1965. Remarkably, there had been virtually no new research since.
“Stoneman based many of his attributions of specific pieces on their use of one or more of a small group of veneer stringing patterns, such as the lunette pattern, which he initially believed were unique and reliable signifiers of Seymour’s work,” writes Mussey, who regards Stoneman’s contribution as monumental, even though he was overzealous in his designations.
As a model for his own endeavor, Mussey chose Honore Lannuier, Cabinetmaker from Paris, Peter Kenny’s exemplary 1998 book and exhibition. He asked Kenny, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing, and Winterthur curator Wendy Cooper, both impeccable scholars, to advise him. It was their guidance, along with the steadfast encouragement of Peabody Essex Museum curator Dean Lahikainen, project coordinator for the book, exhibition and symposium, that enabled Mussey to uncover the wealth of new detail that led to his groundbreaking conclusions.
Mussey began by scouring Boston area archives for references to the many prominent families – among them the Codmans, Amorys and Derbys – who had owned Seymour furniture. At the Boston Public Library, a single entry led him to a cache of 500 letters from the Cranch and Bond families. These provided important insights into the Seymours’ West Country origins, as well as details about their New World patrons.
“No one had ever really attempted to trace an important American cabinetmaker back to England. That was a feat,” says the conservator, who, with Anne Rogers, now Northeast Auction’s London liaison, trawled the English countryside for receipts and other evidence of Seymour’s work for wealthy gentry there between 1775 and 1783.
“We only found three pieces of furniture that were probably or possibly made by Seymour in Devon,” says Mussey. One, a demilune card table with the chalk inscription “JS,” was purchased in New Jersey in 1987 by New York dealers Margaret Caldwell and Carlo Florentino.
“What really comes out of the story of John Seymour in England was that he was not a terribly successful cabinetmaker. In fact, he was more of a joiner and carpenter with aspirations to be a cabinetmaker. That, and ambitions for his children, probably compelled him to come to this country,” Mussey says.
Over the years, others contributed to the project, which was initially funded solely by Robert D. Mussey Associates but later received major support from the Kaufman Americana Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Skinner and Christie’s, among others. Johanna McBrien conducted archival research one day a week for two years under the funding of Wayne Pratt Antiques. Essex, Mass., dealer Clark Pearce, who has been helping to build a major private collection, became a “faithful sounding board” and avid student. Riderwood, Md., dealer Milly McGehee sent numerous Seymour pieces to the conservator for study. Albert Sack, writes Mussey, offered him the best advice of all. “Be careful, young man,” the dealer warned.
For a chapter on the Seymours’ Portland sojourn, Mussey relied on Laura Fecych Sprague, who drew heavily on invoices and accounts books at the Maine Historical Society. A lady’s secretary that came to light almost too late to be included in The Furniture Masterworks of John & Thomas Seymour is the earliest known Portland piece by John Seymour. It was purchased by its present owners at Thomaston Place Auction Galleries in March 2002.
Ever in search of better prospects, the Seymours moved to Boston in 1793 where John’s son Joseph had several years earlier set himself up as an engraver. The cabinetmakers initially had a small shop, but no showroom or established clientele. Six pieces have been found bearing the label “John Seymour & Son, Cabinet Makers, Creek Square, Boston.” They probably date from between 1793 and 1795.
“I’ve come to the firm conclusion that Thomas was the greater genius of the two. This goes against what has been imagined,” says Mussey, who identifies the Seymours’ most accomplished work as post-1804, the year the Seymours opened their Boston Furniture Warehouse on what is now Tremont Street near Boston Common. “John came to this country as a good but not brilliant regional English furniture maker. Thomas seems to have been the one with the real ambition, both for design and for business.”
In true American fashion, Thomas Seymour succeeded by expanding with capital acquired through several short-lived partnerships. He broadened his market by adding other products, such as lighting and carpeting, and catered to the middle class as well as the elite. Most important, he associated himself with some of Boston’s greatest talents, including the cabinetmaker James Cogswell, the carver Thomas Wightman, the upholsterer William Lemon and possibly the ivory turner William Callendar.
A superb sideboard now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art testifies to the success of these collaborations. Retailed by Ginsburg & Levy early in the Twentieth Century, it combines Thomas Seymour’s extraordinary veneer and stringing work with Thomas Wightman’s acanthus-leaf and blossom carvings. “The sideboard is among the greatest masterpieces produced in the Seymour shop, evincing a maturity and aesthetic integration made possible only by Seymour’s reliance on Boston’s best British immigrant artisans,” writes Mussey.
Thomas Jefferson’s 1807-09 embargo on trade with Britain, followed by the War of 1812, spelled bankruptcy for many New England merchants and artisans. For the Seymours, it was a financial blow from which they seem to have never fully recovered. John Seymour died destitute in a Boston’s almshouse in 1818. Thomas Seymour closed his Boston Furniture Manufactory, a successor to the Boston Furniture Warehouse, in 1817 and worked for other cabinetmakers, most notably for Isaac Vose and Son. Forgotten for nearly two decades, Thomas Seymour died in 1848, age 77.
“The source material principally is the furniture itself. It is drop-dead gorgeous,” says Mussey, who, while documenting the lives of the Seymours through archives, concurrently sought to create a template for identifying what is and is not Seymour furniture.
For the first major retrospective of the Seymours’ work, Mussey selected 70 pieces of furniture, augmented by paintings, silver and other objects, which, together, illustrate the Boston milieu of the Seymours and their privileged clients. Lahikainen, the Carolyn and Peter Lynch curator of American decorative arts at the Peabody Essex Museum, created a script for the show and developed its major themes.
The first gallery displays such rdf_Descriptions as a sideboard made for the Amory family and a card table created for George Crowninshield, along with portraits of their owners by Gilbert Stuart and Samuel F.B. Morse. Five card tables illustrate the evolution of the neoclassical style as articulated by Thomas Seymour, from his early Hepplewhite designs to his later Grecian pieces. Subsequent galleries are organized as an abstraction of a house, with stylized vignettes grouping pieces as they would have been used in the parlor, dining room and bedchamber.
“For the final section we have selected seven masterpieces,” says Lahikainen. Included is a commode with paintings of shells by John Penniman and a sideboard, both from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; a dressing table and mirror made for Elizabeth Derby West, in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum; and, from private collections, a tall clock, a gaming table inlaid with Italian marble and a side chair. Also shown is a demilune card table from the Kaufman collection. It is the mate to the labeled example that sold at Sotheby’s in 1998 to Israel Sack Inc, for $541,500, still a record price for Seymour furniture.
“It was a monumental undertaking tracking these pieces down through hundreds of institutions, dealers and collectors. The Peabody Essex Museum has ended up with an archive that is an amazing resource on the Seymours,” notes Lahikainen, who hopes his next project will be on Samuel McIntire, who is similarly well-known but little studied.
If the Seymour project was an unqualified success, the same cannot be said of the cabinetmakers themselves. Concludes Mussey, “John and Thomas Seymour’s lives and those of their families instruct us that even for those hard-working immigrants touched with genius, the American dream could be heartbreakingly elusive. The rewards for John and Thomas Seymour were not found in either Portland or Boston. We are simply left with their brilliant furniture as a testament to their quest for a ‘better country.'”
The Peabody Essex Museum is on East India Square. For information, 866-745-1876 or www.pem.org.
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