|By Heather Berry
Are you a Grandma Moses fan, but think owning a piece of her work is far from your reach? Granted, a single Grandma Moses’ painting titled Sugaring Off sold for $1.4 million at Christie’s in 2006, while the Country Fair sold at Sotheby’s for $1 million in 2009.
Consider the artist’s needlework by comparison. Moses cut her artistic teeth on needlepoint landscapes in the years before she became a serious painter.
So, while her paintings have sold for more than $1 million, the highest price paid for a Grandma Moses’ needlepoint landscape is around $30,000.
On average, her needlework costs a more affordable $15,000 to $20,000, according to Jane Kallir, director of New York’s Galerie St. Etienne. Founded in 1939 by Kallir’s grandfather, Otto Kallir, the gallery was Moses’ sole dealer for the entirety of her career. Since her death, the gallery has had charge of the Grandma Moses’ estate.
“The gallery gave Grandma her first show in 1940,” says Kallir, “and, we represented her up until her death in 1961.”
Kallir sees the Moses’ needlework collection as a bit of a hidden jewel when considering the artist’s entire body of work.
For starters, the needlepoint landscapes created by Moses number about 75 to 100, compared to her 1,600 documented paintings. The caveat to collecting Grandma Moses needlepoint is this rarity.
“The needlepoint pieces don’t come up that often,” explains Kallir. “They are rare.”
According to Kayla Carlsen, head of New York’s Sotheby’s American Art Department, collectors must be patient when looking for a needlepoint work by Moses. Carlsen concurs the needlepoint works are very rare and don’t often come on the market.
In addition to the rarity, the needlework gives a glimpse into Moses’ development as an artist. In particular, her use of wool played a major role in Moses’ understanding of color. According to Kallir, the influence of her needlework is keenly seen in her paintings.
“She learned how to see artistically (with needlepoint) and break her subjects down into colors from embroidery, says Kallir. “You can mix paint, but not wool,” she adds.
To create nuances with color, Moses was forced to look at how different shades of color in her wool strands could create the effect she wanted. To come up with the right shade for a forest, for instance, Moses might have used three different shades of green wool.
“If you look at how she painted nature, you see the same breakdown of color,” explains Kallir. “It’s like what the Impressionists did,” she adds.
Like her paintings, Moses was known to create the same scene in needlepoint multiple times, possibly in an effort refine the work.
In addition, some of the scenes created in needlepoint are much more exotic than the farm scenes which made Moses famous.
The Bennington Museum in Vermont houses seven of these needlepoint pieces, including Moses’ first work in wool titled, Cairo, created in 1933. The scene shows a domed building as a focal point with gondolas floating in the forefront.
According to Callie Raspuzzi, collections manager for the Bennington Museum, some of the needlework was donated to the museum by family members. “Others were purchased with the Grandma Moses’ Schoolhouse, which had been run as a museum by her descendants,” Raspuzzi explains. The Bennington Museum purchased the Schoolhouse’s contents in the 1970s and moved everything to Vermont.
Moses was a completely self-taught artist, making this exercise in needlepoint color more noteworthy.
Anna Mary Robertson, “Grandma Moses,” was born on a farm in Upstate New York in 1860. The farm was located in Washington County, bordering Vermont.
Like most little girls in this era, Anna Mary was taught to sew and cook early. Her formal education was limited.
Her father, an amateur landscape painter himself, encouraged Anna Mary’s love of art, but life on a farm didn’t leave much time for hobbies.
Beginning at the age of 12, Anna Mary was hired to help out on neighboring farms. She continued working as farm help for 15 years.
At 27, Anna Mary married Thomas Moses. The couple left New York within an hour of their wedding and settled in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in 1887.
After working as tenant farmers for a time, the pair saved enough to buy their own land. In Staunton, Va., Anna Mary and Thomas had 10 children, but five died in infancy.
Throughout her long life, Grandma Moses exemplified the American tradition as a hard-working, resourceful and practical farm wife. Often, she sold her own creations to earn extra money; mainly food items.
Moses loved the Blue Ridge Mountains and once called the Adirondacks a “swamp” in comparison.
According to Kallir, the influence of living in higher elevations is evident in her landscapes. The farms in her work are mainly painted from a high viewpoint, offering a patchwork of the landscape below.
Despite her love of the climate and mountains in Virginia, the couple moved home to New York State in 1905. They purchased a farm called “Mt. Nebo” in Eagle Bridge near her birthplace, where she would live the remainder of her life.
It wasn’t until 1927, after Thomas died, when the artist, “Grandma Moses,” began to take shape.
With her children raised and others to work the farm, Moses began creating.
“Moses’ first extended foray into art, however, wasn’t made with paint, but with worsted yarn,” said Kallir in a 2016 lecture on the “Art and Life of Grandma Moses.” The lecture was given as part of collaboration between the Bennington Museum and Shelburne Museum. At the time, Kallir explained, Moses was in Bennington helping her daughter, Anna, who was terminally ill with tuberculosis. It was Anna who asked her mother to create her first needlepoint landscape.
Initially, Moses took her inspiration from the illustrations she collected from magazines and elsewhere. People responded positively to her first needlepoint landscape, giving Moses the impetus to create more. At this point, she was in her late 60s and, increasingly, arthritis made it difficult to use a needle. In her 70s, she began painting, mainly because it was easier for her to hold a paint brush.
“I painted for pleasure, to keep busy and to pass the time away,” Moses is quoted as saying. “And, I thought no more about it than of doing fanciwork,” she continued.
Moses was a prolific painter and ended up taking some work to the county fair, along with her homemade jam. The owner of a local drugstore asked Moses to contribute some paintings to a women’s exchange. For some time, Moses’ paintings sat unsold in this drugstore. In 1938, a New York City art collector, Louis Caldor, happened to see the paintings in the drugstore window. He offered to buy all of Grandma Moses’ paintings. In addition, he supplied her with quality art supplies and encouraged her to keep painting. With Caldor’s support, Moses became something of a phenomenon at the age of 78. Her celebrity included a cover on Time Magazine in 1953. She died at the age of 101 in 1961.
The Moses’ market remains strong, says Carlsen, with something of a resurgence of popularity mainly for her oil works and snow scenes.
While Sotheby’s doesn’t have any needlepoint to offer currently, a snowy scene painted by Moses in 1953 titled, We Goe for a Walk, sold May 15 for $212,500.