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Designs on the Heart

Designs on the Heart

The Homemade Art of Grandma Moses

Karal Ann Marling

ISBN 9780674022263

Publication date: 05/29/2006

It is a story that has gone down in the annals of American art history: a New Yorker visiting upstate Hoosick Falls is entranced by four pictures hanging in the window of a drugstore. Investigating further, he learns they are the handiwork of a 78-year-old widow. Thus begins the rise to fame of Grandma Moses—farmwife, painter, and unlikely celebrity.

In this book Karal Ann Marling, distinguished observer of American visual culture, looks at Grandma Moses as a cultural phenomenon of the postwar period and explores the meaning of her subject matter—and her astonishing fame. What did the “Greatest Generation” see in her simple renderings of people, young and old, tapping maple trees for syrup, making apple butter, gliding across snowy fields on sleighs? Why did Bob Hope, Irving Berlin, and Harry Truman all love her—and the art czars of New York openly despise her? Through the flood of Moses merchandise—splashed across Christmas cards, dishware, yard goods, and gewgaws of every kind—Marling traces the resonances that these “primitive” images struck in an America awkwardly adjusting to a new era of technology, suburbia, and Cold War tensions.

Between the cultural ephemera, folklore, song, and history embedded in Moses’s paintings and the potent advertising shorthand for Americana that her images rapidly became, this book reveals the widespread longing for the memories, comforts, and small victories of a mythic, intimate American past tapped by the phenomenon—in art and commerce alike—of Grandma Moses.


  • To most Americans [Grandma Moses’s] art was real art, the genuine, accessible thing, as opposed to the Abstract Expressionist painting being promoted in certain quarters as the internationalist face of American culture in the 1950’s. It’s a little startling to revisit the art wars waged in the popular press of that era, as one can do in Designs on the Heart… Public battles over ‘highbrow’ versus ‘lowbrow’ had a heated, personal urgency rarely inspired by art today.

    —Holland Cotter, New York Times


  • Karal Ann Marling is Professor of Art History at the University of Minnesota.

Book Details

  • 304 pages
  • 8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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