Leslie Umberger is the Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art at SAAM.
Turkeys is a classic Grandma Moses painting depicting the annual Thanksgiving ritual of catching the holiday bird. Moses captures the cold November sky and an early snow, contrasted by the bright colors worn by both the poultry and the people. Moses gives an unusual amount of detail to the turkeys themselves, paying tribute to the noble bird that Ben Franklin called “a true original of North America.” Moses, a lifelong farm woman, understood the nature of growing crops and raising livestock, yet still pitied the poor turkey for being so widely regarded as delicious. Thanksgiving only became an official American holiday when Moses was a child, yet its role as a family-centric and gratitude-based holiday gave it a special place in her oeuvre.
Moses began painting when she was in her sixties, looking back to the rural ways of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her art became wildly popular after 1939, when the Museum of Modern Art acclaimed her as a “modern primitive,” a label that attached her to the developing American art world as much as it distanced her from it. In the 1940s and especially in the 1950s, her accessible style and subjects were viewed as both quintessentially American and the perfect antidote to a postwar modern art that felt cold and arcane.
This promised gift and another, Out for Christmas Trees (1946), will soon join two other works by the artist in SAAM’s collection, Christmas (1958) and Grandma Moses Goes to the Big City (1946), both currently on view.