T he story of the American artist Anna Mary Robertson Moses—popularly known as Grandma Moses—is in a very real sense the story of twentieth-century folk art, that strange and con- troversial artistic field whose practitioners defy categorization while their works are alternately embraced and despised by both critics and public. Moses was by no means the first American folk artist, but she is unquestionably the most widely known, something I quickly became aware of some years ago when I curated a Japanese tour of the exhibition, “Through a Woman’s Eyes: Female Folk Artists of 20th Century America” (Tokyo, Osaka, Sapporo, 1988). Though the ten women selected for inclusion were all well thought of here, I discovered that my Japanese colleagues privately referred to the group as “Grandma Moses and the Nine Dwarfs,” an allusion to the overwhelming dominance, in their eyes, of Moses’s work. In all fairness, it is little different in the United States. The average citizen, if at all conversant
with art history, knows Grandma Moses as he or she knows Rembrandt, Picasso, or Norman Rockwell. Yet Moses was neither the first of those termed folk artists nor, in the eyes of many, the greatest. How did she come to be so revered? The answer would appear to lie in a combination of factors: the nature of the field, the personality of the artist, and timing, which we all know is everything. The field of folk art or, alternatively, self- taught or non-academic art, is largely an arti- ficial construct created for their own benefit by collectors, dealers, and art historians. From the beginning of American history there were artists who were trained at the schools or academies which taught and perpetuated the technical skills and artistic concepts of American culture. There were also, however, those outside the academies who catered to that large portion of the publicwho couldnot afford the services of the elite. Largely self-taught, often trained in allied fields such as sign painting, wall painting, or
May: Making Soap, Washing Sheep detail; 1945. Moses often employed roads or fence lines to hold her paintings together—in this case a broad country path which links the sheep dipping pond with the distant rolling hills.
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