ExhibitionsGatecrashers: The Rise of the Self-Taught Artist in America
Past Exhibition

Gatecrashers: The Rise of the Self-Taught Artist in America

August 20 – December 12, 2021

Nearly one hundred years ago, artists without formal training “crashed the gates” of the elite art world, as the newspapers of their day put it. Their paintings of American life, as well as fantastical scenes derived from their imaginations, began appearing in major museums. Featuring more than sixty works from leading collections across the country, Gatecrashers will illuminate how artists including John Kane, Horace Pippin, and Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses overcame class-, race-, and gender-based obstacles to enter the inner sanctums of the mainstream art world. These early “gatecrashers” defied life circumstances that limited their access to art training and, thus, redefined who could be an artist in America.

Although Kane, Pippin, and Moses were the most celebrated artists during this first wave of mainstream art world interest (1927–1950), Gatecrashers also includes lesser-known artists who were recognized in this period, including Josephine Joy, Pedro López Cérvantez, and Morris Hirshfield. Thematic galleries will explore how these artists were embraced as examples of American creative excellence and how their occupational histories played a role in advancing their art careers against the backdrop of Depression-era populism. Their paintings will be connected throughout to works on view from the High’s leading collection of self-taught art to demonstrate how these artists paved the way for subsequent generations of self-taught artists in the twentieth century.

This exhibition is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

Anna Mary Robertson“Grandma” Moses, Black Horses, 1942

Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses
American, 1860–1961
Black Horses, 1942
Oil on Masonite
Galerie St. Etienne, New YorkThe gallerist Otto Kallir gave Moses her first New York show, What a Farm Wife Painted, in 1940, and when he saw this work, he traveled upstate to woo Moses, ultimately becoming her exclusive representative. Black Horses records a memory from the Revolutionary War, when Moses’s great grandfather observed the British Army coming through the woods, unhitched his two black plow horses, and rode one off to warn the colonial army. The Moses family’s longstanding roots in the United States established her as a Mayflower descendent and made her a more conservative choice for representing Americanness in the postwar period.

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Horace Pippin, Cabin in the Cotton, ca. 1931–1937 

Horace Pippin
American, 1888–1946
Cabin in the Cotton, ca. 1931–1937
Oil on cotton mounted on Masonite
Art Institute of Chicago, restricted gift in memory of Frances W. Pick from her children Thomas F. Pick and Mary P. HinesThis scene of a log cabin in a blooming cotton field was one of the first paintings that Horace Pippin exhibited publicly in 1937. Pippin’s work was not given very good placement in that exhibition, a regional art show dominated by better-known artists who lived around Chester County, Pennsylvania. After his paintings caused a stir, however, they were moved to a better position. As a prime example of Pippin’s talent for harmonizing bold planes of color, Cabin in the Cotton became a constant fixture in exhibitions of his work during his lifetime.

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John Kane, Scene From The Scottish Highlands, ca. 1927 

John Kane
American, born Scotland, 1860–1934
Scene From The Scottish Highlands, ca. 1927
Oil on canvas
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, gift of G. David ThompsonJohn Kane frequently painted scenes from the Scottish American festivals that he attended in Kennywood Park, located just outside of Pittsburgh. Cast in the dusty green palette of the city’s rolling hills and smoke-filled skies, this painting of two jigging children charmed the artist Andrew Dasburg, who served on the jury of the 1927 Carnegie International and swore to vote every other painting out of the show if Kane’s was not accepted. Kane’s appearance shocked the local press who covered the event with headlines like, “Only Pittsburgher Admitted to International is a House Painter.”

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Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses, Sugaring Off, 1943 

Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses
American, 1860–1961
Sugaring Off, 1943
Oil on canvas
Galerie St. Etienne, New YorkThe practice of tapping maple trees and boiling the sap to create syrup known as “sugaring off” was one of Moses’s most popular subjects. Winter scenes like this one were first licensed by the greeting card industry, which became, as one Hallmark ad from 1953 put it, a “new art medium.” In that year, Hallmark released a special box of holiday cards featuring designs by Moses and seven other artists, including Doris Lee, a trained American painter whose folksy work first became popular in the 1930s. Lee’s painting Afternoon Train, also on view in the exhibition, offers a strikingly similar depiction of another winter ritual in upstate New York.

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Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses, Rockabye, 1957

Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses
American, 1860–1961
Rockabye, 1957
Oil on Masonite
Private collection, Galerie St. Etienne, New YorkMoses painted her own family in Rockabye. Hailed as the “grandmother of the nation” by major politicians including Vermont’s governor, Moses’s role as matriarch was fundamental to her mass appeal, which led to many commissions and licensing deals of her own from the booming industry of midcentury American advertising.

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William Doriani, Flag Day, 1935 

William Doriani
American, born Ukraine, 1891–1958
Flag Day, 1935
Oil on canvas
Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Sidney and Harriet Janis CollectionWilliam Doriani paid tribute to his adopted country with this panoramic view of a patriotic procession that he witnessed supposedly the very day he returned to the United States after thirteen years away. As Sidney Janis noted when he included this work in his 1942 book and exhibition, They Taught Themselves, Doriani took pains to represent all thirty-three flags with the correct numbers of stars and stripes.

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John Kane, Larimer Avenue Bridge, 1932

John Kane
American, born Scotland, 1860–1934
Larimer Avenue Bridge, 1932
Oil on canvas
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Patrons Art FundWhen it was completed in 1912, this Pittsburgh bridge set a record for the longest concrete arch span in the world. It is possible that Kane worked on the early stages of the Larimer Avenue Bridge, but an accident in 1901 that cost him one leg prevented him from continuing his patterns of working in Pittsburgh’s booming infrastructure, coal, and steel industries. Kane said that he became a painter during his next gig coloring railcars: “I learned the use of lead paint, the mixing of colors, the necessity of keeping colors clean and a deal else of information.”

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John Kane, Pietà, 1933 

John Kane
American, born Scotland, 1860–1934
Pietà, 1933
Oil on canvas
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, bequest of Paul J. Winschel in memory of Jean Mertz WinschelWhen Kane copied this religious scene from a fifteenth-century painting that he saw at his local museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art, he added Pittsburgh’s most famous landmarks: Christ lies prone in his mother’s arms beneath the skyline of Schenley Park, which includes the spires of St. Paul’s Cathedral as well as the Cathedral of Learning—the forty-two-story Gothic Revival tower of the University of Pittsburgh that began construction during Kane’s lifetime. The first paintings that Kane entered into the Carnegie’s annual Internationals were copies of religious scenes that were rejected for being unoriginal.

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Lawrence Lebduska, Untitled (Horses and Snakes), 1936 

Lawrence Lebduska
American, 1894–1966
Untitled (Horses and Snakes), 1936
Oil on canvas
Collection of Carl and Marian MullisHorses were a recurring subject for Lawrence Lebduska, who lived for some time on a cousin’s horse farm in Baltimore. His mixing of natural elements such as cacti, red rocks, green grass, and a snake patterned like a giraffe, as well as the scene’s staged wildness, also evidence his interest in dioramas from New York’s American Natural History Museum, which he visited frequently later in life. Lebduska was, like his father, trained as a stained-glass maker, a trade that may have influenced his experimental use of color, especially in the neon pastels he chose for the horse’s bodies.

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Horace Pippin, The Buffalo Hunt, 1933

Horace Pippin
American, 1888–1946
The Buffalo Hunt, 1933
Oil on canvas
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, purchaseAfter hosting Early American Art, a show of historical folk art from artists’ collections in 1924, the Whitney Museum in New York began exhibiting the work of living self-taught artists such as John Kane and Horace Pippin in the 1930s. In 1941, the museum purchased this early work depicting a buffalo tumbling in the snow as a hunter looks on. Pippin showed work alongside the leading American artists of his day at all of the museum’s subsequent annuals until he died in 1946.

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Morris Hirshfield, Girl in a Mirror, 1940

Morris Hirshfield
American, born Poland, 1872–1946
Girl in a Mirror, 1940
Oil on canvas
Museum of Modern Art, New YorkIn 1943, MoMA opened an exhibition of thirty paintings by Morris Hirshfield, which included this nude portrait of a woman with an unnaturally proportioned body perched on tiny, splayed feet. In the headline of his review, Master of the Two Left Feet, prominent critic Peyton Boswell poked fun at the awkwardness of Hirshfield’s feet, suggesting the artist only had access to left-footed shoe forms in the slipper factory that he once ran. Boswell also complained that self-taught artists were unfairly eclipsing other American artists: “While serious, professional artists fight for the recognition that means life to them, the Modern [MoMA] fiddles away its resources building a precious cult around amateurism.”

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Josephine Joy, Waterbirds Nesting, ca. 1935–1939 

Josephine Joy
American, 1869–1948
Waterbirds Nesting, ca. 1935–1939
Oil on canvas
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DCIn Josephine Joy’s depiction of a manmade habitat for snowy egrets, the curvaceous yet sharp-limbed tree and the coolness of the work’s tones exemplify the air of mystery that brought her recognition in the last decade of her life. In 1942, a small exhibition of her work opened at MoMA at the same time as shows of work by German artists who had been outlawed by the Nazis and posters made by New York City high school students—a trio of exhibitions that demonstrate the eclecticism of what was shown at MoMA in this era.

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Gatecrashers: The Rise of the Self-Taught Artist in America is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.
Major funding for this exhibition is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and The Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.
This exhibition is made possible by

Major Funding

Premier Exhibition Series Sponsor

Premier Exhibition Series Supporters

Sarah and Jim Kennedy
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot
Dr. Joan H. Weens Estate

Benefactor Exhibition Series Supporters

Anne Cox Chambers Foundation
Robin and Hilton Howell

Ambassador Exhibition Supporters

The Antinori Foundation
Corporate Environments
Elizabeth and Chris Willett

Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters

Farideh and Al Azadi
Sandra and Dan Baldwin
The Ron and Lisa Brill Family Charitable Trust
Lucinda W. Bunnen
Marcia and John Donnell
Helen C. Griffith
Mrs. Fay S. Howell/The Howell Fund
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
The Arthur R. and Ruth D. Lautz Charitable Foundation
Joel Knox and Joan Marmo
Dr. Joe B. Massey
Margot and Danny McCaul
Wade Rakes and Nicholas Miller
The Fred and Rita Richman Fund
In Memory of Elizabeth B. Stephens by Powell Stephens, Preston Stephens, and Sally Stephens Westmoreland
USI Insurance Services
Mrs. Harriet H. Warren

Generous support is also provided by

Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, and the RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund.