She is constantly compared to Grandma Moses, of course. But Jane Wooster Scott is no 90-year-old widow dabbing away at primitives in an upstate New York farmhouse. Rather, she’s a trim, 40ish ex-Hollywood starlet who only began painting seriously in 1971 but who has already sold out three shows.
Furthermore, Scott doesn’t think she and Grandma Moses are all that similar—”except for subject matter. She was much more of a primitive painter than I am. Her figures were smaller and less well defined.” The two women have one thing indisputably in common: neither took an art lesson in her life.
Scott’s first show was in 1972, when her work was allowed to share space with the paintings of comedian Jonathan Winters at a gallery in Los Angeles. Since then she has seen her canvases of turn-of-the-century Americana snapped up by celebrities like Nancy Sinatra, Henry Fonda, Carol Burnett, Jean Stapleton, collector Joseph Hirshhorn—as well as by unrenowned admirers of primitive art.
After three triumphant West Coast shows, Scott offered her paintings in New York last month for the first time. “New York is the acid test,” she said beforehand. She needn’t have worried. The gallery was packed and her pictures went fast. Ernest Borgnine called to reserve two—both over $4,000. (“I thought he might gasp,” Jane says, “but he didn’t seem to mind at all.”) Farrah Fawcett-Majors bought another. The Paul Newmans, who are friends of the Scotts and acted as hosts at the opening, already have two of Jane’s paintings in their Connecticut home, and they purchased two more. “I live in New England, and it’s the essence of what I love,” declares Joanne Woodward.
If Scott sells all 40-odd paintings in her latest show, she will gross more than $90,000 for the year. “Recently an artist friend showed me how to get a mottled effect when I’m painting a grassy field by daubing with a sponge,” Jane says. “I was astonished. I thought of taking some lessons.” The suntanned artist adds with a smile, “Friends convinced me it might ruin what I do.”
Scott’s career began hesitantly 17 years ago, when Marilyn Knight, a friend and daughter of a former California governor, was about to move into an early-American-style house. “As a joke,” Scott recalls of her house-warming gift, “I got hold of a Grandma Moses painting and copied it line for line. They called me ‘Grandma Wooster.’ But I liked it, and by the time I married I had maybe three such paintings in the closet. Only I’d given up copying Grandma Moses, because I realized I had a knack of my own.”
Most of the year Wooster Scott—the name she signs her canvases with—paints in a two-story house in the north Hollywood Hills. She lives there with her husband, Vernon, entertainment editor of United Press International, and their two children, Vernon IV, 14, and Ashley, 12. (During the summer the family moves to Sun Valley, Idaho where, Jane says, “I do my most serious painting.”) The Scotts met in 1960 when Jane, a former model and actress who played in five movies, was the hostess of a TV talk show, Hollywood Diary. Vernon was a panelist.
He told Jane when they were married that he wanted “a real, full-time wife.” She says, “I would paint for a while and maybe stop for six months while I had a baby.” Now Vernon pays tribute to her: “Jane has never sacrificed any of us for her art. She has kept everything rolling beautifully. I’m extremely proud of her.”
Jane, who grew up outside Philadelphia, is curiously vague about how she gets ideas for her nostalgic scenes of covered bridges, railway depots, hayrides and harvests. (Each painting has a story-telling title like Elmer’s Been Smoking in the Outhouse Again.) “I don’t do a lot of research,” Jane says. “I just seem to know—or I make it up. Maybe what they say about past lives is true,” she adds, only half joking. “Maybe they influence our present lives without our knowing it.”
Scott has thought about the popularity of her primitives. “I think the public is very tired of abstract art,” she says. “And there are so many problems today. What I paint gives people a good feeling about an easier time and way of living.”