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Grandma Moses

Category: Artist and sculptor

 

Anna Mary Robertson Moses (September 7, 1860 – December 13, 1961), known by her nickname Grandma Moses, was a renowned American ‘folk artist’ or ‘primitive artist’, where, as Grandma Moses herself said:  “A primitive artist is an amateur whose work sells”.

Her works have been shown and sold in the United States and abroad, and have been used for greeting cards, postage stamps, tiles, quilt covers, curtain fabric, mugs, tablecloths and even dresses and pinafores.

Moses' paintings are in the collections of many museums. One of her paintings is in the White House.   She was the guest of President and Mrs. Harry S. Truman in 1949 at a tea at which the President played the piano for her, which is really not bad for a little old lady who did not begin painting until she was 76 and carried on painting until her death at 101.

A fabric based on her paintings

In person, Grandma Moses was said to have charmed wherever she went. She was described by The New York Times (14 December 1961) as “A tiny, lively woman with mischievous grey eyes and a quick wit, she could be sharp-tongued with a sycophant and stern with an errant grandchild”.

She remained modest and unassuming for her whole life, lauded, but unaffected by fame, she once said that if she hadn't started painting, she would have raised chickens.

 

For her work, the painter received honorary doctoral degrees from Russell Sage College in 1949 and from the Moore Institute of Art, Science and Industry, Philadelphia, in 1951. Late in life she became a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Society of Mayflower Descendants after the local chapters had traced her ancestry and invited her to join.

Her Works

Grandma Moses’ paintings remain immensely popular in the USA; not just because she was American, but because she depicted everything that Americans hold dear – their traditions and values.  She was able to capture the excitement of winter's first snow, Thanksgiving preparations and the new, young green of oncoming spring. Action and humour enlivened her portrayals of such simple farm activities as maple syrup collecting, soap-making, candle-making, hay-making, berry gathering and the making of apple butter.

Bringing in the maple syrup

Her paintings have an honesty and integrity because she did not paint them for money, she painted them because she loved to remember her past, loved to paint, and as she said, not have idle hands – a very Puritan belief which derives from her roots  “The important thing is keeping busy” .

Grandma Moses : My Life's History (1951)

I have written my life in small sketches, a little today, a little yesterday, as I have thought of it, as I remember all the things from childhood on through the years, good ones, and unpleasant ones, that is how they come out and that is how we have to take them.

The Old chequered house

Many a critic has tried to analyse what her appeal is.  Perhaps the best analysis comes from an unnamed German critic, who was quoted in her obituary in The New York Times (14 December 1961)

There emanates from her paintings a light-hearted optimism; the world she shows us is beautiful and it is good. You feel at home in all these pictures, and you know their meaning. The unrest and the neurotic insecurity of the present day make us inclined to enjoy the simple and affirmative outlook of Grandma Moses.

And this is all true, but Anna Mary Robertson Moses’ paintings are not as simple as they first appear.  Like Lowry, one could be confused into thinking they were almost childish in their simplicity.  But the use of colour and pattern, the use of texture in the paint, the layering of colours and shading shows she was anything but a childish painter, she was actually a very good artist.

The viewpoint is always from above.  Like Lowry it is almost out of body level.  As such, these are spiritual paintings, they are of ‘spirit’.  We also know this because her tiny figures, disproportionately small, cast no shadows.  This is not an error on her part, the realm of spirit is all Light and there are no shadows. 

But, whereas Lowry undoubtedly did go out of body to paint his pictures, Grandma Moses did not, because they were of scenes way back in her childhood, in other words they were past perceptions - the crispness and clarity of her colours, the perspective she uses and the minute detailing all show she was travelling ‘the loom’ in her mind.

I'll get an inspiration and start painting; then I'll forget everything, everything except how things used to be and how to paint it so people will know how we used to live. [As quoted in her obituary in The New York Times (14 December 1961)]

Life

Anna Mary Moses at the time of her marriage,
1871

Born in Greenwich on September 7, 1860, Anna Mary Robertson was the third of Margaret Shanahan Robertson and Russell King Robertson's ten children. She was raised with four sisters and five brothers. Her father ran a flax mill and was a farmer. What little formal education she had was obtained in a one-room country school.

She left home and began to work for a wealthy neighbouring family at 12 years of age, performing chores on their farm. She continued to keep house, cook and sew for wealthy families for 15 years.

When she was 27 years old, she was married to Thomas Salmon Moses, the hired man on the farm where she was doing the housework. The couple took a wedding trip to North Carolina and on the way back, they decided to invest their $600 savings in the rental of a farm near Staunton, Va.

Two of youngest children hugh and anna
photograph c 1904

They remained in Virginia for twenty years. Ten children, five of whom died in infancy, were born to them. In addition to caring for the children and running the house, Mrs. Moses made butter and potato chips, which she sold to neighbours.

Although she loved living in the Shenandoah Valley, in 1905 Anna and Robert moved to a farm in Eagle Bridge, New York at her husband's urging. Thomas Moses died in 1927 of a heart attack, after which her son Forrest helped her operate the farm. She retired and moved to a daughter's home in 1936.

My Life's History - Grandma Moses

I look back on my life like a good day's work, it was done and I feel satisfied with it. I was happy and contented, I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered. And life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.

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What prompted her to start painting?

Anna Mary Robertson Moses was self-taught.  She learned as a child to observe nature minutely, when her father took the children out for walks.  Moses first painted as a child using lemon and grape juice to make colours for her "landscapes".  Other natural materials that she used to create works of art included ground ochre, grass, flour paste, slack lime and sawdust.  Once she was married with children and a farm to run, she had no time for painting. But the intervening years provided her with the subject matter for her paintings, her long life as farm child, hired girl and farmer's wife. 
The Quilting Bee (1950)

Grandma Moses turned out her first picture when she was 76 years old. She took up painting because arthritis had crippled her hands so much that she could no longer embroider. She could not hold a needle, but she could hold a brush, and she had been too busy all her life to bear the thought of being idle. She was normally right handed, but it is intriguing to note that she was probably ambidextrous; when her right hand hurt she switch to her left hand.

She liked to sit quietly and think, she once said, and remember.  She would sit on an old, battered swivel chair, perching on two large pillows. The Masonite on which she painted would lie flat on an old kitchen table before her. There was no easel. Crowding her in her "studio" were an electric washer and dryer that had overflowed from the kitchen.   She would paint for five or six hours, and preferred the first part of the session because, as she said, her hand was fresher and "stiddier."

Her first paintings were sent to the county fair along with samples of her raspberry jam and strawberry preserves. Her jam had won a ribbon, but nobody noticed those first paintings.

Two years after she started, a New York engineer and art collector, Louis J. Caldor, who was driving through Hoosick Falls, saw some of her paintings displayed in a drug store. They were priced from $3 to $5, depending on size. He bought them all, drove to the artist's home at Eagle Bridge and bought ten others she had there.

The next year, 1939, Grandma Moses was represented in an exhibition of "contemporary unknown painters" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A one-man show of her paintings was held in New York in 1940, and other one-man shows abroad followed.

During her lifetime she painted more than 1,000 pictures, twenty-five of them after she had passed her 100th birthday. Her oils have increased in value from those early $3 and $5 works to $8,000 or $10,000 for a large picture.  The Sugaring Off was sold for US $1.2 million in 2006.

Death

 

Cheerful, as a cricket, even in her last years, Grandma Moses continued to be keenly observant of all that went on around her. Up until her last birthday, Sept. 7th, she rarely failed to do a little painting every day.

Governor Rockefeller proclaimed the painter's 100th and 101st birthdays "Grandma Moses Days" declaring that

there is no more renowned artist in our entire country today.  She painted for the sheer love of painting, and throughout her 101 years she was endeared to all who had the privilege of knowing her.

She died at the Hoosick Falls Health Center, where she had been a patient since August, after a fall at her home in nearby Eagle Bridge. Her physician, Dr. Clayton E. Shaw, said she had died of hardening of the arteries, but the best way to describe the cause of death, he suggested, was to say "she just wore out."

Grandma Moses was survived by her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Dorothy Moses; nine grandchildren and more than thirty great-grandchildren.

John F. Kennedy, as quoted in her obituary in The New York Times (14 December 1961)

The death of Grandma Moses removed a beloved figure from American life. The directness and vividness of her paintings restored a primitive freshness to our perception of the American scene. Both her work and her life helped our nation renew its pioneer heritage and recall its roots in the countryside and on the frontier. All Americans mourn her loss.

Sugaring off

References

  • Grandma Moses Story Book – is an anthology for children illustrated by forty-seven colour reproductions of her paintings.
  • My Life's History – is her autobiography, published in 1951
  •  Grandma Moses, American Primitive – is a biography written by Mr. Otto Kallir, and published in 1947
  • Bennington Museum - The one-room school that she attended for a short period of time as a child is now the Bennington Museum in Vermont which has the largest collection of her works in the United States.

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