The Moses palette
On her 150th birthday, Grandma’s folk art farmland idyll survives where she imagined the paintings that would make her immortal
BENNINGTON, Vt. — If she were still alive, Anna Mary Robertson Moses would have turned 150 last Tuesday. As it was, she made it more than two-thirds of the way before expiring at 101 on Dec. 13, 1961. The farm wife from the borderland of southwestern Vermont and eastern New York embarked on a painting career in her late 70s, earning her the sobriquet “Grandma Moses’’ when her naïve paintings of rustic life scored critical and popular success.
An inspiration to generations of late bloomers, Moses drew from memory to paint a pre-modern rural world. The Bennington Museum houses the largest public collection of her works, displayed in a dedicated gallery along with such artifacts as the 18th-century table where she did much of her painting.
Moses did not turn seriously to art until after her five children were grown (five others died in infancy) and after her husband, Thomas, died in 1927. She was “discovered’’ by an art collector in 1938 and by the 1950s had become a celebrated figure. In one corner of the gallery, Moses’s 1955 interview with Edward R. Murrow plays continuously. As smoke wafts from the reporter’s cigarette, she chats amiably about making soap and visiting the White House. Meanwhile, visitors lean in close to the paintings to examine the minutiae of rural life that have become icons of a simpler and fancifully sweeter America.
Moses’s rolling rustic landscape owes less fealty to the states of Vermont and New York than to her state of mind. What the gardens of Giverny were to Monet, the farmland west of Bennington was to Moses. A Life magazine story on the occasion of her 100th birthday quoted her as saying, “The country’s changed a lot around here, but the hills look the same as when I used to go slidin’ down them when I was young.’’ Although impatient drivers of trucks and SUVs have replaced wagons and sleighs on the back roads, glimpses of Moses’s world — and her family — remain on a roughly 30-mile loop from Bennington through Eagle Bridge and Hoosick Falls, N.Y.
Start in North Bennington by heading west from the village center on Bank Street. Outside of town, the right-hand fork leads toward White Creek for an instant immersion in Moses farmland. The road becomes CR-68 at the New York state line and undulates for five miles past dairy farms, pastures, and patches of new-growth forest that have reclaimed 19th-century meadows.
Turn left on McCart Road. The farms along this dirt and gravel byway retain a Grandma Moses look, right down to the sentinel-like black locust trees lining the fields. Bennington’s Mount Anthony on the eastern horizon is etched with contour lines just as Moses painted it.
No landscape looks exactly like a Moses canvas. She eschewed the rules of perspective, stylizing her spaces as horizontal bands. And she combined familiar local scenes with images from postcards and Currier & Ives prints. But the closer you get to her home, the more the land resembles her paintings. At the end of McCart Road, turn right onto CR-69, then left at the next intersection. After the traffic light you come to the Moses Farm Stand, where Anna’s great-grandson Rich Moses and his wife, Kathy, sell produce from the farmstead that Grandma and her husband settled in 1905. A few years ago, Rich and Kathy sold their development rights to the Agricultural Stewardship Association.
“That land is reserved as farmland for posterity,’’ Rich says. He almost talks in painter’s terms as he describes the fertile, generous earth. “Those fields have some of the most beautiful soils you could ever see. Every season they have a different look and feel, with different shades of green and gold to the trees and different wild animals passing through.’’
Down Grandma Moses Road, great-grandson Will Moses and his wife, Sharon, live in the farmhouse that Grandma and her husband occupied. She called the farm Mount Nebo after the overlook in the Bible where Moses saw the Promised Land. Grandma painted many of her scenes here, and impertinent chickens still strut in the yard. At Mount Nebo Gallery, the red barn across the drive, Will carries on the family folk art tradition.
“A lot of people find inspiration in the fact that Grandma didn’t start doing this until her 70s,’’ says Sharon. “People remark that there is still hope for them.’’
Will, however, started young, taught by his grandfather Forrest K. Moses, Grandma’s son. “Each picture tells a story,’’ says Sharon. “Grandma’s were like that, Forrest’s were like that, and Will’s are too.’’ Will works in the studio above the gallery full of his paintings, prints, and children’s books. His work has a livelier, less “primitive’’ feel than his great-grandmother’s, but the spirit is just as buoyant.
Grandma might have been the “Earth Grandmother of Eagle Bridge,’’ as Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes called her, but when she went to town, she traveled 4.5 miles down Route 22 into Hoosick Falls. She met her destiny here in 1938 when a collector found her paintings displayed in a store window and introduced her to a Manhattan art dealer. (A plaque inside what is now a bagel shop recounts the tale.) At 15 John Street Gallery, owners Herb and Peg Loretan carry the work of Thomas E. Moses, another great-grandson who paints in Grandma’s style.
The Loretans celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary in July, and Herb recalls that Grandma came to their wedding reception. “She was an easy, simple girl. She congratulated us and wished us the best,’’ Herb says. “I think it was her charm that made us stay together.’’
Moses is still something of a guardian spirit of Hoosick Falls. A large mural depicting a Moses scene of a blacksmith’s shop covers the brick wall of a KeyBank parking lot on Main Street. Farther south out Main, the Louis Miller Museum celebrates local history. The Grandma Moses exhibit even includes the primly old-fashioned dress she wore for the Time magazine cover commemorating her 100th birthday.
Main Street continues south to the intersection with NY Route 7, which becomes VT Route 9 a few miles east in Bennington. But Moses didn’t end up in Bennington at the end. She was buried high on the hilltop in Hoosick Falls’ Maple Grove Cemetery. Discreet markers lead the way to the gravesite, where a modest stone observes, “Her primitive paintings captured the spirit and preserved the scene of a vanishing countryside.’’
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at email@example.com.