“Memory is history recorded in our brain, memory is a painter, it paints pictures of the past and of the day.”
Grandma Moses’ paintings of the ‘good old days’ of North American country life captivate the viewer with their naïve, innocent charm. The self-taught artists, who came to fame, when she was in her late 70s, painted from memory and by intuition.
“I look out the window sometimes to seek the color of the shadows and the different greens in the trees, but when I get ready to paint, I just close my eyes and imagine a scene.” [Grandma Moses, quoted in TIME magazine, Vol. 52, 1948]
Birthday Cake shows a party of adults and children, who gather around a large table, which seems to lack legs, placed in a lush green meadow. A birthday cake, with uncountable candles lit, ready to be blown out, stands in its centre. It is not clear, however, who the lucky celebrant is. Several people are seated at the table eating slices of watermelon. A group of kids, guarded by a young lady, run around and play. The idyllic scene is set beside a large tree. In the distance a small village of white clapboard houses can be seen, a pond, a lake with sailboats, and the rolling wooded mountains, characteristic of New England.
Typical for Grandma Moses’ idyllic farmscapes, which sometimes faintly – and probably unintentionally – resemble Bruegelesque peasant scenes, is the elevated bird’s-eye view. The compositions are usually populated with people playing or doing their chores. None of their faces are ever individuated. Pure, bold colours are applied flatly without shading, there are no shadows in the pictures, and some objects are randomly sized, which give the images a simplistic, childlike appeal.
An unlikely advocate in Grandma Moses spectacular rise to fame in the postwar years was the US government, who used her paintings as a welcome propaganda tool in its Cold War diplomacy. In 1950, the US government sponsored an exhibition of Grandma Moses’ art that toured six European cities, as part of a promotional campaign of American culture. Its goal was to project the vision of a happy, peaceful and unthreatening American society throughout war-ravaged Europe. An American Foreign Service officer, who was involved with the staging of the show, declared that the exhibition had been as valuable as “pure gold” in promoting “the core of our national character which we are endeavoring to articulate in opposition to the efforts of the communists.”
Grandma Moses, who produced more than two thousand paintings in the last 25 years of her life, remains an icon of American Folk art until today. The innocent charm of her paintings is timeless. Her works are included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and her winter landscapes adorn Hallmark Christmas Cards every year since 1946.
Time Magazine cover, 28 December 1953