Downwind of Death: Grandma Moses

Charles D'Ambrosio

BG-DAmbrosio-Completist copy

Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New & Collected Essays is out this week. To celebrate, we’re running a few of his nonfiction pieces that didn’t quite fit the book but that we adore nonetheless. This essay first appeared in the Portland broadside The Organ. 


I’m not an art critic, and I’m hopelessly cornyqualifications enough to say a few words about Grandma Moses.  For a while in the fifties her small hard wizened face was as folksy and familiar as Robert Frost’s; but where Frost’s personahis shock of silky white hair and rumpled avuncular suitsburied from sight the darkest lyric poet America’s ever produced, Grandma Moses seems to have painted as she lived, happily and without guile or much bother of any sort. Their lives overlapped, and similar amounts of snow fell through their work, his isolating and anxious and modern, hers more like soapflakes in a glass globe, quaintly falling over a souvenir scene.  But her paintings are too joyously full for the elegiac mood–there’s no lossand occupy instead a genial present that’s just a little idiotic, although it feels carping to say soher stuff’s folk-art, and shares a sturdy narrowness of function and the same lack of ambiguity you’d find in a clay pot or wooden spoon or quilt. If anything, she’s a utopian, and her paintings give us not a look into a vanished past, but a visionary’s idea of the future. There is snow but no cold; there is work but no backache. It sounds like heaven, and, indeed, as hardworking and diligent as her people are meant to be, shoeing horses or tapping maple trees, they float around her chalky snowscapes like the angelic figures in Chagall. In a less pragmatic culture, or in an artist who hadn’t spent her first seventy years scrubbing floors, the energy might have found a more florid outlet, probably in religious icons. With Grandma Moses, though, the religious impulse is confined to duty. It’s all work, but the work itself seems celebratory, prompted by the seasons rather than economic necessity. There’s no voice inside her paintings but the one expressed communallyyou can’t imagine a complaint. There are no individuals, and all the people have those strange folk-art heads, shaped, it seems, by mongolism. I kept trying to imagine myself in her scenes, some mopey fuck, some blurry guy skulking around the distant woods while the good folks in the foreground dip candles or shear woolbut that Frostian thing (“Come In,” “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Acquainted with the Night,” etc), that strolling poetry of suicide and despair, doesn’t make it into Grandma Moses. Just trying to imagine yourself alone in those frozen woods and hearing, far off, the voices of shared love and duty, voices with that ringing clarity, that timbre that travels so well in the cold, you feel yourself totally bashed by sadness. Perhaps that’s the appeal of her paintings, your shitty self gone, the weight of life lifted, everything dissolved in a conformity, the quaintness of which partly accounts, I think, for the peaking of her popularity in the fifties.  Her work offers a benign version of mass culture, of television as community, of the American Way.  It’s Beaver in the sticks instead of the suburbs, a society whose adhesive stuff, all that impossible goodness, that inhering sense of obligation and purpose, is so idealized you feel it palpably in her paintingand the deep-down soothing emotion is this: that someone once believed it was beyond argument. We’re far enough down the line that her work now digs back into a nostalgia for nostalgia, a longing for an old longing, for the coonskin caps and reproduction flintlocks, for the train sets and toy Winchesters, for all the boyish Xmas booty that, fifty years ago, was already about a certain homesickness. There’s just enough space in here for irony, but her work resists that sort of positioning, certainly a lot better than the nightmarish realism of Norman RockwellRockwell, whose sweet faces are always just a push away from Alfred E. Newman. It’s hard to locate or imagine the ideal world she depicted –Martha Stewart’s hints about how to archaize life borrow from Grandma Moses, leaving out the sinew, the social cohesion arrived at through duty. It’s been a long time: a century ago Grandma Moses was forty-two years old. Late in her career, the limning blurs and a pleasant haze like failing eyesight softens the pictures. The vistas are foreshortened, the horizons drawn in, but the impressionism is most noticeable in the things you’d expect to hold the clearest lines, in the buildings, the civic base of houses and churches and schools that make up her huddled little villages. It wasn’t the past that was dimming, but the future. The time sense in her work, though, is hard to track.  It’s found more in the cycle of seasons, in the round of what used to be known as women’s work, so that the past and future are always held to the present –among the many things that don’t exist in her world (and at times her pictures seem arrived at entirely through blind exclusion) most noticeably absent are birth and death.  But if utopia is, broadly defined, the future without the stink, then I’d say Grandma Moses was a futurist, since we’re all standing stupidly downwind of death and don’t smell it. We know the past is foul, but there’s none of that in her work, and her late popularity was a sign, a recognition, that her vision of the future could be good, it could be alright, but that we weren’t going there.


Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of two collections of short stories, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the essay collection Orphans. He’s been the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Lannan Fellowship, among other honors. His work has appeared frequently in The New Yorker, as well as in Tin HouseThe Paris ReviewZoetrope All-Story, and A Public Space. He teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His most recent book, Loitering: New & Collected Essays, is out now and available wherever fine books are sold.