The Untold Story of Disco and Its Black, Latino & LGBTQ Roots

As a white Mid­west­ern child of the ‘70s, I received two mes­sages loud and clear: dis­co was a breath­tak­ing­ly glam­orous, sexy urban scene, and “dis­co sucks.”

Cul­tur­al­ly, the lat­ter pre­vailed.

It was the opin­ion voiced most loud­ly by the pop­u­lar boys.

Dis­senters pushed back at their own per­il.

I didn’t know what YMCA was about, and I’m not con­vinced the ski jack­et­ed, puka-neck­laced alpha males at my school did either.

(My father, who sang along joy­ful­ly when­ev­er it came on the car radio, def­i­nite­ly did.)

Disco’s been dead for a long time now.

In the four plus decades since dis­grun­tled Chica­go radio DJ Steve Dahl com­man­deered a base­ball sta­di­um for a Dis­co Demo­li­tion Night where fans tossed around homo­pho­bic and racist epi­thets while destroy­ing records, there’s been notable social progress.

This progress is the lens that makes Noah Lefevre’s Poly­phon­ic video essay The Untold His­to­ry of Dis­co, and oth­er inves­ti­ga­tions into the racial and sex­u­al under­pin­nings of dis­co pos­si­ble.

I cer­tain­ly nev­er heard of Stonewall as a kid, but many con­tem­po­rary view­ers, com­ing of age in a coun­try that is, on the whole, much more LGBTQ-friend­ly than the world of their par­ents and grand­par­ents, are famil­iar with it as a gay rights mile­stone.

Lefevre ties the birth of dis­co to the 1969 Stonewall Upris­ing, and a sub­cul­ture born of neces­si­ty, where­in gay men impro­vised under­ground dance clubs where they could cut freely loose with same sex part­ners.

Instead of live dance music, these venues boast­ed DJs, crate dig­gers open to any groove that would keep the par­ty going on the dance floor: psy­che­del­ic, clas­sic soul, pro­gres­sive soul, jazz fusion, Latin Amer­i­can dance music, African pop…

(Thus the name dis­cotheque)

A dis­co sound began to coa­lesce around exist­ing hits as the O‑jays’ Love Train and Isaac Hayes’ Theme from Shaft.

You can hear it in Jim­my Nolen’s chick­en scratch lead gui­tar for James Brown and ses­sion drum­mer Earl Young’s open high hat and four-to-the-floor beat on Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ The Love I Lost.

In the begin­ning, crowds were pri­mar­i­ly Black, Lati­no and gay at New York City dis­cos like The Loft, which start­ed out as a rent par­ty, and The Sanc­tu­ary, housed in a decon­se­crat­ed mid­town Ger­man Bap­tist church. Map­plethor­pe mod­el Leigh Lee recalled The Sanctuary’s cachet to the Vil­lage Voice’s Peter Braun­stein:

It was sup­posed to be a secret, but I don’t know how secret it could have been when fag­gots and les­bians can come out of a church from mid­night till sun­rise.

As dis­cotheque DJs began dri­ving the record charts, main­stream pro­duc­ers took note, open­ing the gates for such mon­ster hits as the Bar­ry White-helmed Love Unlim­it­ed Orchestra’s Love’s Theme, Don­na Summer’s Love to Love Ya, and Chic’s Le Freak.

A glit­ter-bedecked nude man rode a white horse into Bian­ca Jagger’s birth­day par­ty at Stu­dio 54 on the stroke of mid­night, while hin­ter­land squares did The Hus­tle at their local Hol­i­day Inns. 

By the time celebs like the Rolling Stones and Rod Stew­art start­ing horn­ing in on the act, dis­co had already reached its tip­ping point.

Lit­tle twerps like me, whose moth­ers wouldn’t let them see the R‑rated Sat­ur­day Night Fever bought Bee Gees 45s from our local Peach­es and sang along to Glo­ria Gaynor’s I Will Sur­vive, as did some of our dads…

(An unex­pect­ed plea­sure of Lefevre’s video is see­ing all those famil­iar record labels spin­ning just the way they did on our pre­cious stere­os — Atlantic! Casablan­ca! Poly­dor! RSO!  Some­body pass me a Dr. Pep­per and a yel­low plas­tic insert!)

Radio DJ Rick Dees’ nov­el­ty hit with Dis­co Duck seemed so harm­less at the time, but it was sure­ly music to the main­stream “dis­co sucks” crowd’s ears. (Good luck to any punk who betrayed a fond­ness for Dis­co Duck )

Disco’s reign was brief — Lefevre notes that its end coin­cides with the begin­ning of the AIDS cri­sis — but its impact has been greater than many assume at first blush.

Disco’s empha­sis on turnta­bles and long play ver­sions influ­enced hip hop and elec­tron­ic dance music.

Near­ly half a cen­tu­ry after dis­co­ma­nia seized the land, its deep con­nec­tion to Black, Lati­no and LGBTQ his­to­ry must not be tossed aside light­ly.

Watch more of Noah Lefevre’s Poly­phon­ic video essays here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Dis­co Demo­li­tion Night: Scenes from the Night Dis­co Died (or Did It?) at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, 1979

Two Decades of Fire Island DJ Sets Get Unearthed, Dig­i­tized & Put Online: Stream 232 Mix­tapes Online (1979–1999)

How Gior­gio Moroder & Don­na Summer’s “I Feel Love” Cre­at­ed the “Blue­print for All Elec­tron­ic Dance Music Today” (1977)

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo. Her Indi­ana ties result­ed in an invi­ta­tion to Rick “Dis­co Duck” Dees’ 1977 wed­ding. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

The Chemist Alice Ball Pioneered a Treatment for Leprosy in 1915–and Then Others Stole the Credit for It

It’s bit­ter­sweet when­ev­er a pio­neer­ing, long over­looked female sci­en­tist is final­ly giv­en the recog­ni­tion she deserves, espe­cial­ly so when the sci­en­tist in ques­tion is a per­son of col­or.

Chemist Alice Ball’s youth and dri­ve — just 23 in 1915, when she dis­cov­ered a gen­tle, but effec­tive method for treat­ing lep­rosy — make her an excel­lent role mod­el for stu­dents with an inter­est in STEM.

But in a move that’s only shock­ing for its famil­iar­i­ty, an oppor­tunis­tic male col­league, Arthur Dean, fina­gled a way to claim cred­it for her work.

We’ve all heard the tales of female sci­en­tists who were inte­gral team play­ers on impor­tant projects, who ulti­mate­ly saw their role vast­ly down­played upon pub­li­ca­tion or their names left off of a pres­ti­gious award.

But Dean’s claim that he was the one who had dis­cov­ered an injectable water-sol­u­ble method for treat­ing lep­rosy with oil from the seeds of the chaul­moogra fruit is all the more galling, giv­en that he did so after Alice Ball’s trag­i­cal­ly ear­ly death at the age of 24, sus­pect­ed to be the result of acci­den­tal poi­son­ing dur­ing a class­room lab demon­stra­tion.

Not every­one believed him.

Ball, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii chem­istry department’s first Black female grad­u­ate stu­dent, and, sub­se­quent­ly, its first Black female chem­istry instruc­tor, had come to the atten­tion of Har­ry T. Holl­mann, a U.S. Pub­lic Health Offi­cer who shared her con­vic­tion that chaul­moogra oil might hold the key to treat­ing lep­rosy.

After her death in 1916, Holl­mann reviewed Dean’s pub­li­ca­tions regard­ing the high­ly suc­cess­ful new lep­rosy treat­ment then referred to as the Dean Method and wrote that he could not see “any improve­ment what­so­ev­er over the orig­i­nal [method] as worked out by Miss Ball:”

After a great amount of exper­i­men­tal work, Miss Ball solved the prob­lem for me by mak­ing the eth­yl esters of the fat­ty acids found in chaul­moogra oil.

Type “the Dean Method lep­rosy” into a search engine and you’ll be reward­ed with a sat­is­fy­ing wealth of Alice Ball pro­files, all of which go into detail regard­ing her dis­cov­ery of what became known as the Ball Method, in use until the 1940s.

Kath­leen M. Wong’s arti­cle on this trail­blaz­ing sci­en­tist in the Smith­son­ian Mag­a­zine delves into why Hollmann’s pro­fes­sion­al efforts to posthu­mous­ly con­fer cred­it where cred­it was due were insuf­fi­cient to secure Ball her right­ful place in sci­ence his­to­ry.

That began to change in the 1990s when Stan Ali, a retiree research­ing Black peo­ple in Hawaii, found his inter­est piqued by a ref­er­ence to a “young Negro chemist” work­ing on lep­rosy in The Samar­i­tans of Molokai.

Ali teamed up with Paul Wer­mager, a retired Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii librar­i­an, and Kathryn Wad­dell Takara, a poet and pro­fes­sor in the Eth­nic Stud­ies Depart­ment. Togeth­er, they began comb­ing over old sources for any pass­ing ref­er­ence to Ball and her work. They came to believe that her absence from the sci­en­tif­ic record owed to sex­ism and racism:

Dur­ing and just after her life­time, she was believed to be part Hawai­ian, not Black. (Her birth and death cer­tifi­cates list both Ball and her par­ents as white, per­haps to “make trav­el, busi­ness and life in gen­er­al eas­i­er,” accord­ing to the Hon­olu­lu Star-Bul­letin.) In 1910, Black peo­ple made up just 0.4 per­cent of Hawaiʻi’s pop­u­la­tion.

“When [the news­pa­pers] real­ized she was not part Hawai­ian, but [Black], they felt they had made an embar­rass­ing mis­take, for­get­ting about it and hop­ing it would go away,” Ali said. “It did for 75 years.”

Their com­bined efforts spurred the state of Hawaii to declare Feb­ru­ary 28 Alice Ball Day. The Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii installed a com­mem­o­ra­tive plaque near a chaul­moogra tree on cam­pus. Her por­trait hangs in the university’s Hamil­ton Library, along­side a posthu­mous­ly award­ed Medal of Dis­tinc­tion.

(“Mean­while,” as Car­lyn L. Tani dry­ly observes in Hon­olu­lu Mag­a­zine, “Dean Hall on the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawai‘i Mānoa cam­pus stands as an endur­ing mon­u­ment to Arthur L. Dean.)

Fur­ther afield, the Lon­don School of Hygiene and Trop­i­cal Med­i­cine cel­e­brat­ed its 120th anniver­sary by adding Ball’s, Marie Sklodowska-Curie’s and Flo­rence Nightingale’s names to a frieze that had pre­vi­ous­ly hon­ored 23 emi­nent men.

And now, the God­moth­er of Punk Pat­ti Smith has tak­en it upon her­self to intro­duce Ball to an even wider audi­ence, after run­ning across a ref­er­ence to her while con­duct­ing research for her just released A Book of Days.

As Smith notes in an inter­view with Numéro:

Things have real­ly changed. I think we are liv­ing in a very beau­ti­ful peri­od of time because there are so many female artists, poets, sci­en­tists, and activists. Through books espe­cial­ly, we are redis­cov­er­ing and valu­ing the women who have been unjust­ly for­got­ten in our his­to­ry. Dur­ing my research, I came across a young black sci­en­tist who lived in Hawaii in the 1920s. At that time, there was a big lep­er colony in Hawaii. She had dis­cov­ered a treat­ment using the oil from the seeds of a tree to relieve the pain and allow patients to see their friends and fam­i­ly. Her name was Alice Ball, and she died at just 24 after a ter­ri­ble chem­i­cal acci­dent dur­ing an exper­i­ment. Her research was tak­en up by a pro­fes­sor who removed her name from the study to take full cred­it. It is only recent­ly that peo­ple have dis­cov­ered that she was the one who did the work.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Joce­lyn Bell Bur­nell Changed Astron­o­my For­ev­er; Her Ph.D. Advi­sor Won the Nobel Prize for It

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

How the Female Sci­en­tist Who Dis­cov­ered the Green­house Gas Effect Was For­got­ten by His­to­ry

Marie Curie Became the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize, the First Per­son to Win Twice, and the Only Per­son in His­to­ry to Win in Two Dif­fer­ent Sci­ences


- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Meet Honey Lantree, the Trailblazing 1960s Female Drummer

Quick, who’s your favorite female drum­mer?

Hard­ly a strange ques­tion!

(Yes, you are allowed to pick more than one favorite.)

Things were decid­ed­ly dif­fer­ent when drum­mer Hon­ey Lantree, the only female mem­ber of the 60s British Inva­sion group the Hon­ey­combs, took up the sticks.

Drums were not her orig­i­nal instru­ment. Her boyfriend, employ­er, and even­tu­al band­mate Mar­tin Mur­ray was giv­ing her a gui­tar les­son when she asked if she could take a whirl at his kit.

Mur­ray recalled his sur­prise when she start­ed whal­ing away like a vet:

She was just a born, nat­ur­al drum­mer; she hadn’t played before and just went for it. I was aghast, star­ing at her, and said, “All right, you’re our new drum­mer.”

Lantree’s gen­der helped the Hon­ey­combs secure press.

She snagged a celebri­ty endorse­ment for Carl­ton drums and turned 21 with a cake fes­tooned with marzi­pan bees, and, more impor­tant­ly, a #1 sin­gle, “Have I the Right.”

Of course, her gen­der also ensured that most of the cov­er­age would focus on her appear­ance, with scant, if any men­tion of her musi­cal tal­ent.

Lantree was not the only mem­ber of the Hon­ey­combs to find this galling.

As lead singer Denis D’Ell told the Record Mir­ror in 1965:

How can it be a gim­mick just because we have a girl, Hon­ey, on drums? Hon­ey plays with us pure­ly and sim­ply because she is the right drum­mer for the job. If she wasn’t any good, she wouldn’t hold down the job.

On tour, we don’t have any trou­bles by hav­ing a girl with us. We just oper­ate as a group. Per­haps it is that the nov­el­ty has worn off — we hope that fans soon will for­get all about this so-called gim­mick.

The fol­low­ing year, he quit, along with lead gui­tarist Alan Ward and Peter Pye, who had replaced Mur­ray on rhythm gui­tar. Lantree and her broth­er, Hon­ey­combs’ bassist John, sol­diered on with new per­son­nel until the 1967 death of pro­duc­er Joe Meek.

Still, for a brief peri­od, the Hon­ey­combs’ record­ings, tours, tele­vi­sion appear­ances, and yes, press cov­er­age made Lantree the most famous female drum­mer in the world.

Admit­ted­ly, the field was not par­tic­u­lar­ly crowd­ed. Just chal­leng­ing in ways that out­stripped the dis­pro­por­tion­ate focus on fig­ures, boyfriends, and beau­ty tips.

Male fans dragged Lantree off­stage dur­ing a con­cert in Corn­wall, lead­ing her to remark, “You expect this sort of thing but it’s still ter­ri­fy­ing.”

Around the same time, anoth­er British band, the all-female Liv­er­birds, were invit­ed to cross the pond for a cov­et­ed gig in Las Vegas…provided they’d play it top­less. “Can you imag­ine me on the drums play­ing top­less,” Sylvia Saun­ders, who short­ly there­after was forced to choose between the drums and a high risk preg­nan­cy, gasped.

Although she is said to have inspired a num­ber of young female musi­cians, includ­ing Karen Car­pen­ter, Lantree, who died in 2018 at the age of 75, rarely shows up on curat­ed lists of notable female drum­mers.

In a strange way, that spells progress — there are many more female drum­mers today than there were in the mid 60s, and mer­ci­ful­ly more oppor­tu­ni­ties for them to be tak­en seri­ous­ly as musi­cians.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent

Meet Vio­la Smith, the World’s Old­est Drum­mer: Her Career Start­ed in the 1930s, and She Played Until She Was 107

Meet the Liv­er­birds, Britain’s First Female (and Now For­got­ten) Rock Band

The Women of Rock: Dis­cov­er an Oral His­to­ry Project That Fea­tures Pio­neer­ing Women in Rock Music

Meet Fan­ny, the First Female Rock Band to Top the Charts: “They Were Just Colos­sal and Won­der­ful, and Nobody’s Ever Men­tioned Them”

The Woman Who Invent­ed Rock n’ Roll: An Intro­duc­tion to Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe

New Web Project Immor­tal­izes the Over­looked Women Who Helped Cre­ate Rock and Roll in the 1950s

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

A Stunning, Hand-Illustrated Book of Mushrooms Drawn by an Overlooked 19th Century Female Scientist

Mush­rooms have qui­et­ly become super­stars of the glob­al stage.

Sure, not every­one likes them on piz­za, but who cares?

In the 21st-cen­tu­ry, they are hailed as role mod­els and poten­tial plan­et savers (not to men­tion a wild­ly pop­u­lar design motif…)

Time-lapse cin­e­matog­ra­phy pio­neer Louie Schwartzberg’s crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed doc­u­men­tary, Fan­tas­tic Fun­gi, has made experts of us all.

Go back a cen­tu­ry, and such knowl­edge was much hard­er won, requir­ing time, patience, and prox­im­i­ty to field or for­est.

Wit­ness Fun­gi col­lect­ed in Shrop­shire and oth­er neigh­bor­hoods, a hand­bound, hand-illus­trat­ed 3‑volume col­lec­tion by one Miss M. F. Lewis, of Lud­low, Eng­land.

Miss Lewis, a tal­ent­ed artist with an obvi­ous pas­sion for mycol­o­gy spent over 40 years painstak­ing­ly doc­u­ment­ing the spec­i­mens she ran across in England’s West Mid­lands region.

Each draw­ing or water­col­or is iden­ti­fied in Miss Lewis’ hand by its sub­jec­t’s sci­en­tif­ic name. The loca­tion in which it was found is duti­ful­ly not­ed, as is the date.

The hun­dreds of species she cap­tured with pen and brush between 1860 and 1902 def­i­nite­ly con­sti­tute a life’s work, and also an unpub­lished one.

Cor­nell University’s Mann Library, where the only copy of this pre­cious record is housed, has man­aged to truf­fle up but a sin­gle ref­er­ence to Miss Lewis’ sci­en­tif­ic myco­log­i­cal con­tri­bu­tion.

Eng­lish botanist William Phillips, writ­ing in an 1880 issue of the Trans­ac­tions of the Shrop­shire Archae­o­log­i­cal and Nat­ur­al His­to­ry Soci­ety, not­ed that he been “per­mit­ted to look over [a work] of very much excel­lence exe­cut­ed by Miss M. F. Lewis, of Lud­low”, adding that “sev­er­al rare species [of fun­gi] are very artis­ti­cal­ly rep­re­sent­ed.“

The his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of Miss Lewis’ work extends beyond the fun­gal realm.

As Sage writes in Miss­ing Miss­es in Mycol­o­gy, a post on the Mann Library’s Tum­blr cel­e­brat­ing Miss Lewis and her con­tem­po­rary, Eng­lish mycol­o­gist and illus­tra­tor, Sarah Price, women’s work was often omit­ted from the offi­cial sci­en­tif­ic record:

While we’re now see­ing con­sid­er­able effort to rec­ti­fy the record, the dis­cov­ery of untold sto­ries to fill in the blanks can be tricky busi­ness. It’s not that the sto­ries nev­er hap­pened — the field of botany, for one, is replete with some pret­ty spec­tac­u­lar evi­dence of women’s (often unac­knowl­edged) engage­ment with sci­en­tif­ic inquiry, embod­ied in the detailed illus­tra­tions that cap­tured the insights of obser­va­tions from the nat­ur­al world. But the pub­lished his­tor­i­cal record is often woe­ful­ly scant when it comes to clos­er detail on the lives and careers of the women who have helped car­ry mod­ern sci­ence for­ward.

We may nev­er learn any­thing more about the par­tic­u­lars of Miss Lewis’ train­ing or per­son­al cir­cum­stances, but the care she took to pre­serve her own work turned out to be a great gift for future gen­er­a­tions.

Leaf through all three vol­umes of Miss M.F. Lewis’ Fun­gi col­lect­ed in Shrop­shire and oth­er neigh­bor­hoods on the Inter­net Archive:

Vol­ume I

Vol­ume II

Vol­ume III

Via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent 

John Cage Had a Sur­pris­ing Mush­room Obses­sion (Which Began with His Pover­ty in the Depres­sion)

How Mush­room Time-Laps­es Are Filmed: A Glimpse Into the Pio­neer­ing Time-Lapse Cin­e­matog­ra­phy Behind the Net­flix Doc­u­men­tary Fan­tas­tic Fun­gi

The Beau­ti­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed Atlas of Mush­rooms: Edi­ble, Sus­pect and Poi­so­nous (1827)

Alger­ian Cave Paint­ings Sug­gest Humans Did Mag­ic Mush­rooms 9,000 Years Ago

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

An Introduction to the Painting of Artemisia Gentileschi, the First Woman Admitted to Florence’s Accademia di Arte del Disegno (1593–1653)

The works will speak for them­selves. — Artemisia Gen­tileschi

The praise Baroque painter Artemisia Gen­tileschi gar­nered dur­ing her life­time is aston­ish­ing.

Not because the work isn’t deserv­ing of the atten­tion, but rather, because she was a young woman in 17th-cen­tu­ry Flo­rence.

The first female to be accept­ed into Florence’s pres­ti­gious Accad­e­mia delle Arti del Dis­eg­no, she was col­lect­ed by the Medicis and respect­ed by her peers — almost all of them male.

Her style was as dra­mat­ic as the sub­jects she depict­ed.

One of her most com­pelling ones, cov­ered in Alli­son Leigh’s ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son, above, comes from an apoc­ryphal book of the Old Tes­ta­ment. It con­cerns Judith, a come­ly Jew­ish wid­ow who, assist­ed by her maid­ser­vant, behead­ed the loutish Assyr­i­an gen­er­al Holofernes, whose forces threat­ened her town.

This sto­ry has attract­ed many artists over time: Lucas Cranach the Elder, Donatel­loBot­ti­cel­liMichelan­ge­lo, Cristo­fano Allori, Goya, Klimt, Franz von Stuck, and Car­avag­gio, the painter whom Artemisia most sought to emu­late as a teen.

Artemisia vis­it­ed Judith and Holofernes sev­er­al times through­out her career.

Her first attempt, at around the age of 19 or 20, fea­tures two healthy-look­ing young women, their sleeves sen­si­bly rolled so as not to dirty their bright dress­es, a prospect that seems much more like­ly than it does in Caravaggio’s ver­sion, paint­ed some 15 years ear­ly.

Caravaggio’s Judith is brave, but maid­en­ly, a bit ret­i­cent in her snowy frock.

Artemisia’s is a bad ass, sword casu­al­ly bal­anced on her shoul­der as she checks that the coast is clear before escap­ing with a bas­ket con­tain­ing her victim’s head. Although she prayed for the suc­cess of her endeav­or, this is a woman who might not have need­ed god’s help to “crush the ene­mies” arrayed against her peo­ple.

Things get even more vis­cer­al in Artemisi­a’s third depic­tion, paint­ed per­haps 10 years lat­er, after she had mar­ried and moved to Flo­rence.

Art his­to­ri­an Sis­ter Wendy Beck­ett, an unabashed fan, describes the mus­cu­lar and bloody scene in Sis­ter Wendy’s 1000 Mas­ter­pieces:

Gen­tileschi shows Judith grip­ping the head and wield­ing the sword with a feroc­i­ty of con­cen­tra­tion as she applies her­self to the gris­ly but nec­es­sary task, like a prac­ti­cal house­wife gut­ting a fish (there is none of that one stroke and it’s off, beloved of the male painter. The maid might feel qualms, not Judith… The hor­ri­fied face of the butchered male is bal­anced by the grim­ly com­posed face of the butcher­ing female.

Sev­er­al years fur­ther on, Artemisia again imag­ined Judith’s flight, in a scene so the­atri­cal, it could be a pro­duc­tion still.

It’s easy to imag­ine that Artemisia’s tal­ent was care­ful­ly cul­ti­vat­ed by her artist father, Orazio Gen­tileschi, but when it comes to the feroc­i­ty of her depic­tions, the spec­u­la­tion tends to take on a dark­er cast.

The TED-Ed les­son brings up her rape as a teenag­er, at the hands of her father’s friend, fel­low painter Agostono Tas­si. Leigh also pro­vides legal and soci­etal con­text, some­thing that is often miss­ing from more sen­sa­tion­al allu­sions to this trau­mat­ic event.

If you engage with the TED-Ed’s les­son plan more deeply, you’ll find a link to an arti­cle on nov­el­ist Joy McCul­lough’s research into 400-year-old court tran­scripts pri­or to describ­ing Artemisia’s rape tri­al in 2019 Blood Water Paint, as well as his­to­ri­an Eliz­a­beth S. Cohen’s essay The Tri­als of Artemisia Gen­tileschi: a Rape as His­to­ry:

Com­bin­ing irre­sistibly sex, vio­lence, and genius, like the sto­ry of Heloise and Abelard, the rape of Artemisia Gen­tileschi has been retold many times. So often indeed, and with such rel­ish that this episode over­shad­ows much dis­cus­sion of the painter and has come to dis­tort our vision of her. In the past as well as in the recent renew­al of inter­est in Artemisia, biog­ra­phers and crit­ics have had trou­ble see­ing beyond the rape. In her case, the old-fash­ioned notion that women are defined essen­tial­ly by their sex­u­al his­to­ries con­tin­ues to reign, as if a girl who suf­fers assault must be under­stood as there­after a pri­mar­i­ly sex­u­al crea­ture.

Explore a gallery of Artemisia Gentileschi’s paint­ings here.

As long as I live I will have con­trol over my being. — Artemisia Gen­tileschi

Relat­ed Con­tent 

A Space of Their Own, a New Online Data­base, Will Fea­ture Works by 600+ Over­looked Female Artists from the 15th-19th Cen­turies

The Female Pio­neers of the Bauhaus Art Move­ment: Dis­cov­er Gertrud Arndt, Mar­i­anne Brandt, Anni Albers & Oth­er For­got­ten Inno­va­tors

The Icon­ic Uri­nal & Work of Art, “Foun­tain,” Wasn’t Cre­at­ed by Mar­cel Duchamp But by the Pio­neer­ing Dada Artist Elsa von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven

The Com­plete Works of Hilma af Klint Are Get­ting Pub­lished for the First Time in a Beau­ti­ful, Sev­en-Vol­ume Col­lec­tion

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

When John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” Scandalized the Art World in 1884

Any­one who’s ever walked the red car­pet or posed for a high fash­ion shoot would count them­selves lucky to cre­ate the sort of impres­sion made by John Singer Sar­gent’s icon­ic por­trait of Madame X.

Though not if we’re talk­ing about the sort of impres­sion the paint­ing made in 1884, when the model’s haughty demeanor, plung­ing bodice, and unapolo­getic use of skin-light­en­ing, pos­si­bly arsenic-based cos­met­ics got the Paris Salon all riled up.

Most scan­dalous­ly, one of her gown’s jew­eled straps had slipped from her shoul­der, a cos­tume mal­func­tion this cool beau­ty appar­ent­ly couldn’t be both­ered to fix, or even turn her head to acknowl­edge.

Vir­ginie Amélie Aveg­no Gautreau, the New Orleans-born Paris socialite (social climber, some would have sniffed) so strik­ing­ly depict­ed by Sar­gent, was hor­ri­fied by her like­ness’ recep­tion at the Salon. Although Sar­gent had coy­ly replaced her name with an ellipses in the painting’s title, there was no doubt in view­ers’ minds as to her iden­ti­ty.

John Sar­gent, Evan Char­teris’ 1927 biog­ra­phy, shows Madame Gautreau very lit­tle mer­cy when recount­ing her attempts at dam­age con­trol:

A demand was made that the pic­ture should be with­drawn. It is not among the least of the curiosi­ties of human nature, that while an indi­vid­ual will con­fess and even draw atten­tion to his own fail­ings, he will deeply resent the same office being under­tak­en by some­one else. So it was with the dress of Madame Gautreau. Here a dis­tin­guished artist was pro­claim­ing to the pub­lic in paint a fact about her­self she had hith­er­to nev­er made any attempt to con­ceal, one which had, indeed, formed one of her many social assets. Her resent­ment was pro­found.

Sar­gent, dis­traught that his por­trait of the cel­e­brat­ed scene­mak­er had yield­ed the oppo­site of the hoped-for pos­i­tive splash, refused to indulge her request to remove the paint­ing from exhi­bi­tion.

His friend, painter Ralph Worme­ley Cur­tis, wrote to his par­ents of the scene he wit­nessed in Sargent’s stu­dio when Madame Gautreau’s moth­er rolled up, “bathed in tears”, primed to defend her daugh­ter:

(She) made a fear­ful scene say­ing “Ma fille est per­du — tout Paris se moque d’elle. Mon genre sera for­cé de se bat­tre. Elle mouri­ra de cha­grin” etc. 

(My daugh­ter is lost — all of Paris mocks her. My kind will be forced to fight. She will die of sor­row.) 

John replied it was against all laws to retire a pic­ture. He paint­ed her exact­ly as she was dressed, that noth­ing could be said of the can­vas than had been said of her appear­ance dans le monde etc. etc.

Defend­ing his cause made him feel much bet­ter. Still we talked it all over till 1 o’clock here last night and I fear he has nev­er had such a blow. He says he wants to get out of Paris for a time. He goes to Eng. in 3 weeks. I fear là bas he will fall into Pre‑R. Influ­ence wh. has got a strange hold of him, he says since Siena.

As Char­lotte, cre­ator of the Art Deco YouTube chan­nel, points out in a fre­net­ic overview of the scan­dal, below, Sar­gent came out of this fias­co a bit bet­ter than Madame Gautreau, whose dam­aged rep­u­ta­tion cost her friends as well as her queen bee sta­tus.

(In her essay, Vir­ginie Amélie Aveg­no Gautreau: Liv­ing Stat­ue, art his­to­ri­an Eliz­a­beth L. Block cor­rects Char­lot­te’s asser­tion that the paint­ing “destroyed Madame Gautreau’ life”. Con­trary to pop­u­lar opin­ion, with­in three years, she was mak­ing her the­atri­cal debut, host­ing par­ties, and was hailed by the New York Times as a “piece of plas­tic per­fec­tion.”‍)

Sar­gent did indeed decamp for Eng­land, where he found both cre­ative and crit­i­cal suc­cess. By century’s end, he was wide­ly rec­og­nized as the most suc­cess­ful por­trait painter of his day.

The por­trait of Madame Gautreau remained enough of a sore spot that he kept it out of the pub­lic eye for more than twen­ty years, though short­ly after its dis­as­trous debut at the Salon, he did take anoth­er swipe at it, repo­si­tion­ing the sug­ges­tive shoul­der strap to a more con­ven­tion­al­ly accept­able loca­tion, as the below pho­to, tak­en in his stu­dio in 1885 con­firms.

In 1905, he final­ly allowed it to see the light of day in a Lon­don exhi­bi­tion, with sub­se­quent engage­ments in Berlin, Rome and San Fran­cis­co.

In 1916, when the por­trait was still on dis­play in San Fran­cis­co, he wrote his friend Edward “Ned” Robin­son, Direc­tor of The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, offer­ing to sell it for £1,000, say­ing, “I sup­pose it is the best thing I have done.”

“By the way,” he added, “I should pre­fer, on account of the row I had with the lady years ago, that the pic­ture should not be called by her name.”

Even though Madame Gautreau had died the pre­vi­ous year, Robin­son oblig­ed, reti­tling the paint­ing Por­trait of Madame X, the name by which it and its glam­orous mod­el are famous­ly known today.

Read Eliz­a­beth L. Block’s fas­ci­nat­ing essay, “Vir­ginie Amélie Aveg­no Gautreau: Liv­ing Stat­ue” here.

Read about the dis­cov­er­ies Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art con­ser­va­tion­ists made dur­ing X‑radiography and infrared reflec­tog­ra­phy of the por­trait here.

Com­ple­tion­ists might even want to have a gan­der at Nicole Kid­man done up to resem­ble Madame X for a 1998 Vogue spread shot by Steven Meisel.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Scan­dalous Paint­ing That Helped Cre­ate Mod­ern Art: An Intro­duc­tion to Édouard Manet’s Olympia

When Pablo Picas­so and Guil­laume Apol­li­naire Were Accused of Steal­ing the Mona Lisa (1911)

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Three Female Artists Who Helped Create Abstract Expressionism: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning & Helen Frankenthaler.

The three artists that gal­lerists James Payne and Joanne Shurvell have cho­sen to rep­re­sent New York City in their series Great Art Cities Explained are as refresh­ing as they are sur­pris­ing.

Andy Warhol?


Kei­th Har­ing?


Jean-Michel Basquiat?


These gents would be the obvi­ous choice, though only one of the three — Basquiat was a native New York­er.

Instead, Payne and Shurvell aim their spot­light at three NYC-born Abstract Expres­sion­ists.

Three female NYC-born Abstract Expres­sion­ists — Lee Kras­ner, Elaine de Koon­ing, and Helen Franken­thaler.

These wom­en’s con­tri­bu­tions to the move­ment were con­sid­er­able, but Kras­ner and deKoon­ing spent much of their careers over­shad­owed by cel­e­brat­ed hus­bands — fel­low Abstract Expres­sion­ists Jack­son Pol­lock and Willem de Koon­ing.

The New York-based Abstract Expres­sion­ism deposed Paris as the cen­ter of the art world, and was the most macho of move­ments. Kras­ner, Franken­thaler, and Elaine de Koon­ing often heard their work described as “fem­i­nine”, “lyri­cal”, or “del­i­cate”, the impli­ca­tion being that it was some­how less than.

Hans Hof­mann, an Abstract Expres­sion­ist who ran the 8th Street ate­lier where Kras­ner stud­ied after train­ing at Coop­er Union, the Art Stu­dents League, and the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Design, and work­ing for the WPA’s Fed­er­al Art Project, once praised one of her can­vas­es by say­ing, “This is so good you would not believe it was done by a woman.”

Payne and Shurvell detail how the socia­ble Kras­ner, already estab­lished in the NYC art scene, shared impor­tant con­tacts with Pol­lock, with whom she became roman­ti­cal­ly entan­gled short­ly after their work was shown along­side Picasso’s, Matisse’s , and Georges Braque’s in the piv­otal 1942 French and Amer­i­can Paint­ing exhi­bi­tion at the McMillen Gallery.

She was an ener­getic pro­mot­er of his work, and a cheer­leader when he flagged.

They mar­ried and moved to Long Island in an unsuc­cess­ful bid to put the kibosh on his drink­ing and extracur­ric­u­lar affairs. He com­man­deered a barn on the prop­er­ty for his stu­dio, while she made do with a bed­room.

While Pol­lock ranged around large can­vas­es laid on the barn floor, famous­ly splat­ter­ing, Kras­ner pro­duced a Lit­tle Image series on a table, some­times apply­ing paint straight from the tube.

MoMA’s descrip­tion of an unti­tled Lit­tle Image in their col­lec­tion states:

Kras­ner likened these sym­bols to Hebrew let­ters, which she had stud­ied as a child but could no longer read or write. In any case, she said, she was inter­est­ed in cre­at­ing a lan­guage of pri­vate sym­bols that did not com­mu­ni­cate any one spe­cif­ic mean­ing.”

After Pol­lock died in a car crash while dri­ving under the influ­ence — his mis­tress sur­vived — Kras­ner claimed the barn stu­dio for her own prac­tice.

It was a trans­for­ma­tive move. Her work not only grew larg­er, it was informed by the full-body ges­tures that went into its cre­ation.

Ten years lat­er, she got her first solo show in New York, and MoMA gave her a ret­ro­spec­tive in 1984, six months before her death.

In a wild­ly enter­tain­ing 1978 inter­view on Inside New York’s Art World, below, Kras­ner recalls how ear­ly on, her gen­der didn’t fac­tor into how her work was received.

I start in high school, and it’s only women artists, all women. Then I’m at Coop­er Union, woman’s art school, all women artists and even when I’m on WPA lat­er on, there’s no — you know, there’s noth­ing unusu­al about being a woman and being an artist. It’s con­sid­er­ably lat­er that all this begins to hap­pen, specif­i­cal­ly when the seat moves from Paris, which was the cen­ter, and shifts into New York, and I think that peri­od is known as Abstract Expres­sion­ism, where we now have gal­leries, price, mon­ey, atten­tion. Up ’til then it’s a pret­ty qui­et scene. That’s when I’m first aware of being a woman and “a sit­u­a­tion” is there.

Elaine de Koon­ing was an abstract por­traitist, an art crit­ic, a polit­i­cal activist, a teacher, and “the fastest brush in town”, but these accom­plish­ments were all too often viewed as less of an achieve­ment than being Mrs. Willem de Koon­ing, the female half of an Abstract Expres­sion­ist “it cou­ple.”

Great Art Cities Explained sug­gests that the twen­ty year peri­od in which she and Willem were estranged — they rec­on­ciled when she was in her late 50s — was one of per­son­al and artis­tic growth. She took inspi­ra­tion from the bull­fights she wit­nessed on her trav­els, turned a lusty female gaze on male sub­jects, and was com­mis­sioned to paint Pres­i­dent Kennedy’s offi­cial por­trait:

All my sketch­es from life as he talked on the phone, jot­ted down notes, read papers, held con­fer­ences, had to be made very quick­ly, catch­ing fea­tures and ges­tures, half for mem­o­ry, even as I looked, because he nev­er sat still. It was not so much that he seemed rest­less, rather, he sat like an ath­lete or col­lege boy, con­stant­ly shift­ing in his chair. At first this impres­sion of youth­ful­ness was a hur­dle, as was the fact that he nev­er sat still.

Like Kras­ner and Elaine de Koon­ing, Helen Franken­thaler was also part of an Abstract Expres­sion­ist gold­en cou­ple, but for­tune decreed she would not play a dis­tant sec­ond fid­dle to hus­band Robert Moth­er­well .

This sure­ly owes some­thing to her pio­neer­ing devel­op­ment of the “soak-stain” tech­nique, where­in she poured tur­pen­tine-thinned oil paint direct­ly onto unprimed can­vas, laid flat.

Soak-stain pre-dat­ed her mar­riage.

After a vis­it to Frankenthaler’s stu­dio, where they viewed her land­mark Moun­tains and Sea, above, abstract painters Ken­neth Noland and Mor­ris Louis also adopt­ed the tech­nique, as well as her pen­chant for broad, flat expans­es of col­or — what became known as Col­or Field Paint­ing.

Like Pol­lock, Franken­thaler scored a LIFE Mag­a­zine spread, though as Art She Says observes, not all LIFE artist pro­files were cre­at­ed equal:

The dia­logue between these two spreads appears to be a tale of social­ly-deter­mined mas­cu­line ener­gy and fem­i­nine com­po­sure. Though Pollock’s dom­i­nant stance is a key part of his artis­tic prax­is, the issue is not that he is stand­ing while she is sit­ting. Rather, it is that, with Pol­lock, we are allowed to glimpse into the inti­mate sides of his tor­tured and ground­break­ing prac­tice. In stark oppo­si­tion, Parks’ images of Franken­thaler rein­force our need to see women artists as high­ly curat­ed, pol­ished fig­ures who are as com­plete as the mas­ter­pieces that they pro­duce. Even if those works appear high­ly abstract­ed and vis­cer­al, each stroke is per­ceived, at some lev­el, to rep­re­sent a cal­cu­lat­ed, per­fect­ed moment of visu­al enlight­en­ment.

We’re intrigued by Frankenthaler’s 1989 remark to the New York Times:

There are three sub­jects I don’t like dis­cussing: my for­mer mar­riage, women artists, and what I think of my con­tem­po­raries.

For those who’d like to learn more about these three abstract painters, Payne and Shurvell offer the fol­low­ing book rec­om­men­da­tions:

Ninth Street Women: Lee Kras­ner, Elaine de Koon­ing, Grace Har­ti­gan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Franken­thaler: Five Painters and the Move­ment That Changed Mod­ern Art by Mary Gabriel  

Women of Abstract Expres­sion­ism by Irv­ing San­dler 

Abstract Expres­sion­ism by David Anfam 

Three Women Artists: Expand­ing Abstract Expres­sion­ism in the Amer­i­can West by Amy Von Lin­tel, Bon­nie Roos, et al.

Lee Kras­ner: A Biog­ra­phy by Gail Levin 

Fierce Poise: Helen Franken­thaler and 1950s New York by Alexan­der Nemerov

A Gen­er­ous Vision: The Cre­ative Life of Elaine de Koon­ing by Cathy Cur­tis

Elaine de Koon­ing: Por­traits by Bran­don Brame For­tune

Watch a playlist of oth­er Great Art Cities Explained here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Female Pio­neers of the Bauhaus Art Move­ment: Dis­cov­er Gertrud Arndt, Mar­i­anne Brandt, Anni Albers & Oth­er For­got­ten Inno­va­tors

The For­got­ten Women of Sur­re­al­ism: A Mag­i­cal, Short Ani­mat­ed Film

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

A Quick Six Minute Jour­ney Through Mod­ern Art: How You Get from Manet’s 1862 Paint­ing, “The Lun­cheon on the Grass,” to Jack­son Pol­lock 1950s Drip Paint­ings

The Nazi’s Philis­tine Grudge Against Abstract Art and The “Degen­er­ate Art Exhi­bi­tion” of 1937

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Grandma Moses Started Painting Seriously at Age 77, and Soon Became a Famous American Artist

As an artis­tic child grow­ing up on a farm in the 1860s and ear­ly 1870s, Anna Mary Robert­son (1860–1961) used ground ochre, grass, and berry juice in place of tra­di­tion­al art sup­plies. She was so lit­tle, she referred to her efforts as “lamb­scapes.” Her father, for whom paint­ing was also a hob­by, kept her and her broth­ers sup­plied with paper:

He liked to see us draw pic­tures, it was a pen­ny a sheet and last­ed longer than can­dy.

She left home and school at 12, serv­ing as a full-time, live-in house­keep­er for the next 15 years. She so admired the Cur­ri­er & Ives prints hang­ing in one of the homes where she worked that her employ­ers set her up with wax crayons and chalk, but her duties left lit­tle time for leisure activ­i­ties.

Free time was in even short­er sup­ply after she mar­ried and gave birth to ten chil­dren — five of whom sur­vived past infan­cy. Her cre­ative impulse was con­fined to dec­o­rat­ing house­hold items, quilt­ing, and embroi­der­ing gifts for fam­i­ly and friends.

At the age of 77 (cir­ca 1937), wid­owed, retired, and suf­fer­ing from arthri­tis that kept her from her accus­tomed house­hold tasks, she again turned to paint­ing.

Set­ting up in her bed­room, she worked in oils on masonite prepped with three coats of white paint, draw­ing on such youth­ful mem­o­ries as quilt­ing bees, hay­ing, and the annu­al maple sug­ar har­vest for sub­ject mat­ter, again and again.

Thomas’ Phar­ma­cy in Hoosick Falls, New York exhib­it­ed some of her out­put, along­side oth­er local wom­en’s hand­i­crafts. It failed to attract much atten­tion, until art col­lec­tor Louis J. Cal­dor wan­dered in dur­ing a brief sojourn from Man­hat­tan and acquired them all for an aver­age price tag of $4.

The next year (1939), Mrs. Moses, as she was then known, was one of sev­er­al “house­wives” whose work was includ­ed in the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art’s exhib­it “Con­tem­po­rary Unknown Amer­i­can Painters”.  The empha­sis was def­i­nite­ly on the untaught out­sider. In addi­tion to occu­pa­tion, the cat­a­logue list­ed the non-Cau­casian artists’ race…

In short order, Anna Mary Robert­son Moses had a solo exhi­bi­tion in the same gallery that would give Gus­tav Klimt and Egon Schiele their first Amer­i­can one-per­son shows, Otto Kallir’s Galerie St. Eti­enne.

In review­ing the 1940 show, the New York Her­ald Tri­bune’s crit­ic cit­ed the folksy nick­name (“Grand­ma Moses”) favored by some of the artist’s neigh­bors. Her whole­some rur­al bonafides cre­at­ed an unex­pect­ed sen­sa­tion. The pub­lic flocked to see a table set with her home­made cakes, rolls, bread and prize-win­ning pre­serves as part of a Thanks­giv­ing-themed meet-and-greet with the artist at Gim­bels Depart­ment Store the fol­low­ing month.

As crit­ic and inde­pen­dent cura­tor Judith Stein observes in her essay “The White Haired Girl: A Fem­i­nist Read­ing”:

In gen­er­al, the New York press dis­tanced the artist from her cre­ative iden­ti­ty. They com­man­deered her from the art world, fash­ion­ing a rich pub­lic image that brimmed with human interest…Although the artist’s fam­i­ly and friends addressed her as “Moth­er Moses” and “Grand­ma Moses” inter­change­ably, the press pre­ferred the more famil­iar and endear­ing form of address. And “Grand­ma” she became, in near­ly all sub­se­quent pub­lished ref­er­ences. Only a few pub­li­ca­tions by-passed the new locu­tion: a New York Times Mag­a­zine fea­ture of April 6, 1941; a Harper’s Bazaar arti­cle; and the land­mark They Taught Them­selves: Amer­i­can Prim­i­tive Painters of the 20th Cen­tu­ry, by the respect­ed deal­er and cura­tor Sid­ney Janis, referred to the artist as “Moth­er Moses,” a title that con­veyed more dig­ni­ty than the col­lo­qui­al diminu­tive “Grand­ma.”

But “Grand­ma Moses” had tak­en hold. The avalanche of press cov­er­age that fol­lowed had lit­tle to do with the pro­bity of art com­men­tary. Jour­nal­ists found that the artist’s life made bet­ter copy than her art. For exam­ple, in a dis­cus­sion of her debut, an Art Digest reporter gave a charm­ing, if sim­pli­fied, account of the gen­e­sis of Moses’ turn to paint­ing, recount­ing her desire to give the post­man “a nice lit­tle Christ­mas gift.” Not only would the dear fel­low appre­ci­ate a paint­ing, con­clud­ed Grand­ma, but “it was eas­i­er to make than to bake a cake over a hot stove.” After quot­ing from Genauer and oth­er favor­able reviews in the New York papers, the report con­clud­ed with a folksy sup­po­si­tion: “To all of which Grand­ma Moses per­haps shakes a bewil­dered head and repeats, ‘Land’s Sakes’.” Flip­pant­ly deem­ing the artist’s achieve­ments a mark­er of social change, he not­ed: “When Grand­ma takes it up then we can be sure that art, like the bobbed head, is here to stay.”

Urban sophis­ti­cates were besot­ted with the plain­spo­ken, octo­ge­nar­i­an farm wid­ow who was scan­dal­ized by the “extor­tion prices” they paid for her work in the Galerie St. Eti­enne. As Tom Arthur writes in a blog devot­ed to New York State his­tor­i­cal mark­ers:

New York­ers found that, once wartime gaso­line rationing end­ed, Eagle Bridge made a nice excur­sion des­ti­na­tion for a week­end trip. Local res­i­dents were usu­al­ly will­ing to talk to out­siders about their local celebri­ty and give direc­tions to her farm. There they would meet the artist, who was a delight to talk to, and either buy or order paint­ings from her. Songwriter/impresario Cole Porter became a reg­u­lar cus­tomer, order­ing sev­er­al paint­ings every year to give to friends around Christ­mas. 

In the two-and‑a half decades between pick­ing her paint­brush back up and her death at the age of 101, she pro­duced over 1600 images, always start­ing with the sky and mov­ing down­ward to depict tidy fields, well kept hous­es, and tiny, hard work­ing fig­ures com­ing togeth­er as a com­mu­ni­ty. In the above doc­u­men­tary she alludes to oth­er artists known to depict­ing “trou­ble”… such as live­stock bust­ing out of their enclo­sures.

She pre­ferred to doc­u­ment scenes in which every­one was seen to be behav­ing.

Remark­ably, MoMA exhib­it­ed Grand­ma Moses’ work at the same time as Picasso’s Guer­ni­ca.

In a land and in a life where a woman can grow old with fear­less­ness and beau­ty, it is not strange that she should become an artist at the end. — poet Archibald MacLeish


Read Judith Stein’s fas­ci­nat­ing essay in its entire­ty here.

See more of Grand­ma Moses’ work here, and her por­trait on TIME mag­a­zine in 1953.

Relat­ed Con­tent

How Leo Tol­stoy Learned to Ride a Bike at 67, and Oth­er Tales of Life­long Learn­ing

The Long Game of Cre­ativ­i­ty: If You Haven’t Cre­at­ed a Mas­ter­piece at 30, You’re Not a Fail­ure

What Does It Take to Be a Great Artist?: An Aging Painter Reflects on His Cre­ative Process & Why He Will Nev­er Be a Picas­so

Free Art & Art His­to­ry Cours­es

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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