NEW YORK—“When Grandma Moses started painting in earnest, in 1938, she was ready to get going. She didn’t ponder over a painting for a year, but just produced one work after another,” Hildegard Bachert, one of the directors of Galerie St. Etienne, New York, recently told ARTnewsletter. Earlier this month the gallery hosted an exhibition marking the 70th anniversary of the gallery’s first show of her work. The recent show included 68 paintings, most on cardboard or Masonite, the majority of which were on loan from the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; the Shelburne Museum in Vermont; and the Bennington Museum in Vermont. Anna Mary Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses (1860–1961) was very prolific in the last 23 years of her life, producing as many as 1,800 paintings, from small works (8 inches by 12 inches) to the occasional large piece (35 inches by 48 inches).
Seventeen paintings were for sale in the recent show; three sold, to private collectors. The price range for most of the works was $45,000/300,000. One large piece, the oil on canvas Going to Big City, 1946, was priced at “over $1million,” Bachert said, but did not sell. In addition, three embroideries—the artist referred to them as “worsted paintings”—were also available, priced at $30,000.
Moses took up painting in earnest at the age of 76, when arthritis in her hands made embroidery impossible, and showed her pictures at country fairs. They received little attention until Louis J. Caldor, an amateur art collector, happened to see a few works that Moses had put on display at a drugstore in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., in the late 1930s.
Caldor bought all of the paintings there, and began to promote Moses to museums and galleries. In 1939, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, included her work in an exhibition of contemporary folk art. The following year, Otto Kallir, owner of Galerie St. Etienne, gave Moses her first solo show, “What a Farmwife Painted.” The show was a sensation. She was 80 years old.
Galerie St. Etienne purchased Caldor’s collection and took on representation of the artist; it now represents her estate. “We have a comprehensive collection,” Bachert told ARTnewsletter. The gallery set up a licensing wing to promote her work, and the painter’s images have steadily appeared on note cards, stationery and other items ever since.
Dating Moses’ work is not always easy; some paintings and embroideries may have been made before 1938 or even in the 1920s. However, no one period in her painting career appears to be more sought after than any other, and price does not seem to be affected by whether a work is painted on canvas, wood or cardboard.
Moses’ work has come up at auction hundreds of times. The top price of $1.4million was paid at Christie’s in New York in 2006 for the oil on canvas Sugaring Off, 1943, against a $450,000/650,000 estimate. Other top prices include $1.1million, for the oil on canvas Country Fair, 1950, at Sotheby’s last May (estimate: $700,000/900,000), and $598,400 for the oil on canvas The Old Oaken Bucket, The Last, 1947, at Sotheby’s in 2006 (estimate: $300,00/400,000).