This is just a short mini-blog to look at a twentieth century Impressionist from Iceland, Ásgrímur Jónsson
Ásgrímur Jónsson wasat the forefront of Icelandic art. He was a pioneer of Icelandic visual art and the first Icelander to become a professional painter. Ásgrímur was born on March 4th, 1876, in Suðurkot, a small town thirty kilometres south west of Reykjavik.
In 1897 he left home and went to Copenhagen. In 1900, aged twenty-four, he enrolled on a three-year art course at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Once qualified, he toured a number of European countries before settling back down in Iceland in 1910. On his journey home he visited Germany and the cities of Berlin and Weimar and it was during this period that he became influenced by the French Impressionists and the Post Impressionists, especially the landscape works of the French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.
Ásgrímur’s main painting genre was landscape art and especially that of his native Iceland and through his art many native artists would follow his lead. His depictions of nature were fashioned by the romance of the nineteenth century. He liked to focus his depictions on the changes of light and how it altered the view of the land. He alternated between watercolours and oils but is best known for the former medium.
He was a great believer in Naturalism in art – the broad movement in the nineteenth century which represented things closer to the way we see them. However later his works were characterised by colourful expressionism.
Ásgrímur also worked as a pioneer in the illustration of Icelandic legends and adventures. He pictorially depicted Icelandic Folk Legends delving into the world of elves and trolls who lived in the semi-darkness of the old turf farmhouse and who would kidnap humans. Tales of pastors haunting their wives-to-be, of witches flying to Satanic gatherings, of sheep-rustling and flying bulls. A land where humans live inside hills, where witches flying on jawbones instead of broomsticks, and tales which rarely have happy endings.
Ásgrímur’s works on folklore themes were well received. The art critics delighted in his depictions and that Iceland’s folktale heritage was being addressed, for the first time, by an Icelandic artist. Ásgrímur’s depictions of the appearance of elves and trolls also met with widespread approval from the public who believed he had succeeded in capturing the way that they imagined their folklore characters to be. For Ásgrímur Jónsson it was all about the viewer’s own imagination when they looked at these folklore works and it was a reminder of the beauty of their land when they looked at his landscape paintings. Today the folklore paintings form part of the unique cultural heritage conserved in the collections of the National Gallery of Iceland.
Ásgrímur Jónsson died on April 5th, 1958, aged 82. The Ásgrímur Jónsson’s collection, which is today a department within the National Gallery of Iceland, originated in 1960 when a small gallery was opened in Ásgrímur’s studio and home, which he bequeathed to the Icelandic nation along with all of his works in his own possession upon his death.
This is the second part of my story about Grandma Moses and if you have just alighted on this page, you should go back to my last blog in which I looked at her early life.
I ended my last blog about Grandma Moses in the year 1927. This was the year when her husband of almost forty years, Thomas Salmon Moses, died and Anna May Robertson Moses became a sixty-seven year old widow. Following her husband’s death, she remained on her Mount Nebo farmstead along with her youngest son Hugh, who took over the running of the farm along with his wife Dorothy. One of Grandma Moses’ other daughters, Anna, lived close by in the town of Bennington with her husband Frank, who was her first cousin, and their two children Walter and Thomas. Anna had contracted tuberculosis and had become very ill. Grandma Moses spent a lot of time with her and her family taking care of her two grandchildren. Anna Moses died in 1933 and Grandma Moses stayed on at their Bennington home for the next two years looking after her son-in-law and his children. This arrangement continued until 1935, at which time Frank Moses remarried and Grandma Moses was then able to return to her home.
Over those past years Grandma Moses found more time to carry on with her embroidery and needlepoint work. Once when her sister Celestia came to Mount Nebo for a visit she saw some of her sister’s work and suggested that she should concentrate more on painting rather than embroidery. This advice, together with the fact that Grandma Moses was suffering badly from arthritis of the hands, persuaded her to heed her sister’s advice and she began to concentrate all her artistic efforts, not in yarn but in oils.
I ended my last blog by mentioning Grandma Moses “big break” as far as her artistic opportunities were concerned. This came in 1938 when her daughter-in-law, Dorothy persuaded her to let her take some of her embroidered work and painted pictures down to the Woman’s Exchange in the W.D. Thomas drugstore in Hoosick Falls and it was at this point that fate stepped in and took a hand, for passing through the town during his Easter vacation was Louis Calder, a New York amateur art collector and engineer. He spotted Grandma Moses’ works displayed in the drugstore window, priced between $3 and $5 and he bought them all. He then enquired about the artist of his recent acquisitions and went to visit her. He then bought a further ten of her works.
Louis Calder returned to New York and tried to interest people in Grandma Moses’ works. There was little interest. Somewhat despondent Calder had virtually given up hope of re-selling his newly bought acquisitions. However the following year, 1939, he got to hear about an exhibition being held in the Members Room of the city’s Museum of Modern Art that was to open on October 18th and run for a month. The exhibition was to be entitled Contemporary Unknown American Painters. Calder went to the organiser of the show, Sidney Janis and showed him the works of Grandma Moses which he had just bought the previous year. Janis agreed to exhibit three of the paintings, Home, Maple Sugar Days and The First Automobile. None of the paintings sold but Calder was not disheartened and contacted Grandma Moses urging her to produce further works for him.
In the meantime Louis Calder went on searching for prospective buyers for the paintings. It was at the end of 1939 that he heard of a new gallery, Galerie St Etienne, which had recently been opened by Otto Kallir on Manhattan’s West 57th Street. In 1938, Otto Kallir, then known as Otto Nierenstein, was one of Vienna’s most prominent Jewish art dealers but had fled the Nazi regime and emigrated to the United States. He then, in 1939, established his gallery and helped to introduce Expressionism to America. Later in the 1940’s and 1950’s, Kallir would give numerous important Austrian and German modernists, including Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Alfred Kubin, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Egon Schiele their first American exhibitions in his gallery. Otto Kallir was known to be interested in folk art and primitive art and so Louis Calder arranged for him to see some of Grandma Moses’ art work.
One of the paintings which Kallir really liked was entitled Bringing in the Maple Sugar and it is this painting which I have featured in My Daily Art Display blog today. Grandma Moses completed the work in 1839 and it depicts a sugaring-off scene in which people are collecting sap from the maple trees. It is a winter scene set in a snow-covered clearing and we can see people busying themselves with the task in hand of collecting the precious tree sap to be used in making maple syrup. Once the sap is collected in the buckets it is carried over and poured into kettles which dangle over fires. Besides the hard-working adults in the scene, Grandma Moses has added the figures of children happily playing in the snow and waiting for some maple syrup candy which is being prepared by a man on the left who is busily stirring the pot. To the right of the picture we can see a horse-driven sleigh loaded with timber which will be used to keep the fires burning. In the left mid-ground we see a team of oxen approaching, pulling their sleigh full of wood. It is a painting full of activity but what impressed Kallir most of all was not the way the artist had painted the figures, which he considered rather clumsy, but the way she had painted the landscape background. He commented that although he believed Grandma Moses had never heard of any rules of perspective, she had managed to achieve an impression of depth in the way she had depicted the tall bare trees in the foreground to smaller ones in the background and the clearly outlined larger figures in the foreground to the smaller, hazy-detailed figures in the background. He also liked how she had almost merged the smoke which billowed and rose from the chimney of the hut and the bluish gray sky of an early morning in winter. For Kallir it was Grandma Moses’ ability to convey a true atmosphere and a oneness with nature that appealed to him.
Otto Kallir agreed to exhibit Grandma Moses’ works in a “one-man show” at his gallery. It opened on October 9th 1940 and was entitled What a Farm Wife Painted and consisted of thirty-three of her paintings and one of her embroidered works. The New York Times of October 8th previewed the exhibition and part of the article read:
“…Mrs Anna May Robertson Moses, known to the countryside around Greenwich, New York, as Grandma Moses, began painting three years ago, when she was approaching 80…”
From that day on Anna Mary Robertson Moses became known as Grandma Moses.