Retrospective elevates Grandma Moses' legacy

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For anyone who believes that Grandma Moses is no more than a commercialized cliche, prepare to be surprised by the strength and vividness of her paintings in the original.

Grandma Moses is best known for her winter scenes of traditional New England farm life. But the bright colors of her less-well-known summer paintings now leap into life with striking shades of green, yellow, and red. A firm, geometrical sense of composition combines with her whimsical rendering of the human figure to produce a depth of response in the viewer that can only come from real art.

"Grandma Moses in the 21st Century," now at the San Diego Museum of Art, provides an opportunity for a new generation to become acquainted with an artist who initially attracted media attention mainly because of her curiosity value. She did not begin her artistic career until she was 80 years old.

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Born Anna Mary Robertson in 1860 in upstate New York, she acquired her Old Testament last name when she married farmer Robert Moses at the age of 27. Since childhood, her life had revolved around traditional farm and domestic work. Quiltmaking, haying, milking: All the myriad rural tasks that bring farmers into contact with the land were transformed in her pictorial imagination into idealized scenes that she painted from memory in her farmhouse bedroom in Eagle's Bridge, N.Y.

Detractors criticized the unschooled Moses (whose paintings can be classified in the folk or primitive tradition) as too cheerful, too traditional, and much too successful commercially to be serious art. Such criticism failed to deter Moses, whose output was prodigious: 1,600 paintings in a 20-year career.

Her last painting, "The Rainbow," was finished shortly before her death at age 101. Far from exhibiting decline in the artist, it is an outstanding example of Moses' idiosyncratic style. It provides a symbolic climax to an exhibition that breaks new ground in proving that the art of Grandma Moses outshines the forces of age and opinion.

'Grandma Moses in the 21st Century' is at the San Diego Museum of Art through Aug. 26.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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