A Farm Wife-Turned-Celebrity

Best Grandma Moses exhibition in years includes a number of her largest pictures. ART: REVIEW

I AM glad Grandma Moses's pictures sold well enough that she didn't have to stop painting in order to raise chickens. She was quite prepared to do so, for to her art was no highfalutin enterprise, but an activity like any other one done for pleasure or pay. Had her work not sold, she would have put her energies elsewhere. Fortunately, however, her paintings caught on. ``As for myself,'' she wrote her grandson, ``I shall continue painting. I can make more money that way as it is easier for me than taking in boarders.''

Grandma Moses, to put it mildly, was a late bloomer. She was 80 in 1940 when Otto Kallir gave her her first show in New York's Galerie St. Etienne, and she was 101 when she laid down her brushes for the last time in 1961. There was never anything pretentious about her life or her career. Her first exhibition opened under the unassuming title ``What a Farm Wife Painted,'' and that title has remained appropriate for every show, book, calendar, or magazine article devoted to her since.

Despite her modesty, fame sought her out. By the mid-1940s, with the appearance of a book and literally millions of Christmas cards, Grandma Moses was known nationwide. In the 1950s, she was honored by President Truman, interviewed by Edward R. Murrow, and portrayed by Lillian Gish in an early television ``docu-drama.'' At the time of her death, she was an international celebrity - one of the first art-world figures to attain this status.

It is especially fitting that a major exhibition of Grandma Moses's paintings should now be held in the same gallery that sponsored her first show just one year short of 50 years ago. And that it should be co-curated by Jane Kallir, the granddaughter of the man who discovered her, and Hildegard Bachert, Otto Kallir's longtime associate.

``Grandma Moses,'' at the Galerie St. Etienne, presents 81 of her paintings ranging in date from 1918 through 1961, and including most of those exhibited in her 1940 show. Several of her most famous works, popularized through greeting cards and reproductions but seldom seen in the original (``Out for Christmas Trees,'' ``Joy Ride,'' ``Over the River to Grandma's House'') are included. But most significantly, a special effort was made to gather a number of the artist's largest pictures for inclusion in what is without doubt the best Grandma Moses show in years.

No matter where one looks, one sees images of the good life executed in crisp colors and precise detail. Just a sampling of her titles gives an excellent indication of what she painted: ``Home for Thanksgiving,'' ``Evening, Camping in the Woods,'' ``Sugaring,'' ``Haying Time,'' ``Grandma Moses Going to the Big City,'' ``The Quilting Bee,'' and ``Sleigh Ride.''

Almost all of her pictures celebrate life in one form or other. Walking among these ``naive'' but also very shrewd depictions of country life, I felt something of the same joy and delight I experienced while viewing Alexander Calder's tiny mobiles, toys, wire sculptures, jewelry, etc. at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum recently. Grandma Moses may have been less worldly-wise about matters of art than Calder, but she had the same vitality and trust in creative intuition that helped make him so special.

Her images are always grounded in reality and experience, never in self-conscious cuteness or whimsy. She didn't intend to be quaint or charming, her paintings just turned out that way. And small wonder, considering her total lack of formal training.

But what she lacked in professionalism, she more than made up in sensibility and imagination. Her feeling for mood and atmosphere was extraordinary, although no more so than her intuitive grasp of the principles of pattern and design. Many of her paintings literally teem with life and include everything from dancing couples and prancing horses to tiny birds in the sky, and yet everything seems unified and part of a carefully considered compositional plan. This is made all the more remarkable by the fact that every detail in her pictures - every house, person, vehicle, animal, and plant - is individually perceived and characterized. In fact, one could describe her compositions as consisting of hundreds of little ``portraits'' of people and things that add up to one overall portrait of the occasion she is celebrating.

Finally, her sense of color was original and captivating. Although incapable of fully orchestrating color, she was capable of producing lovely ``melodies'' with it. She had a special way with soft greens, most particularly when played off against the brilliant hues of dresses and shirts, the glistening whites of distant houses or churches, or the winding blue of a river or stream. And her handling of snow was one of her strongest points. Nothing she painted has been as widely imitated as her winter landscapes. In them, snow blankets the earth, and men, women, and children are either setting out to have a good time or to engage in one or another of the many activities ``Grandma'' remembered from her youth.

At the Galerie St. Etienne, 24 West 57th Street, through Jan. 13.

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