Biography of Grandma Moses
Childhood and Education
The artist best known as "Grandma Moses" was born Anna Mary Robertson; the third of ten children to parents Russell King Robertson, a flax farmer, and Mary Shannahan Robertson. Author Margot Cleary describes how Moses, "...spent her early years learning how to do women's work on the farm. She helped raise the younger children, made soap and candles and boiled down maple sap." Despite her responsibilities, Moses enjoyed her childhood, later describing it as, "...happy days, free from care or worry, helping mother, rocking Sister's cradle, taking sewing lessons from mother sporting with my Brothers, making rafts to float over the mill pond, Roam the wild woods gathering Flowers, and building air castles." (she wrote thus exactly in her later reflections). Moses had three brothers and she loved being outdoors with them, she describes herself in her own memoir, My Life's History, as something of a "tomboy" and said that if there was anything her brothers could do, she could do it better.
Moses' interest in art began at an early age when she would practice drawing pictures. While her mother wanted her to focus on domestic tasks, her father encouraged an obvious artistic talent. According to Cleary, "her father, who had done some painting himself, would bring home sheets of newsprint now and then[...]and she would set to work. First she would draw in her design, then find her "paints" - some berry juice, perhaps, or a stick or two of carpenter's chalk - and color them as prettily as she could.[...]Her brothers poked fun at her "lambscapes," as she called them, but her father urged her on...."
Typical of rural life in this period, Grandma Moses' education was minimal. Attending school for only a few months she was expected to spend the rest of each year helping her mother with household chores. Perhaps anticipating her future profession, Moses' favorite thing to do in school was to draw maps. It is also worth noting that although she did not paint often in early life, Moses put her hand to a great deal of crafting projects, and she became particularly talented with needlework. Furthermore, her father painted murals in the family's own house, as did her aunt in hers, and a certain playful competition developed within the family as to who could make the best art and be the most creative. This became the family's preferred way to keep busy and pass the time when not at work.
Art remained a family pastime that Moses all but abandoned for a period in her life beginning as an early teen. This was largely due to other responsibilities, which were formalized at the age of twelve when her parents sent her away to board and work as a housekeeper. Over the course of the next decade she would live in various different homes doing all aspects of domestic work.
It was in one of these homes in 1886, when she was twenty-six years old, that the young artist met Thomas Salmon Moses, a hired hand. The two fell in love and were married in November 1887. She wanted an equal partnership and about her marriage Moses later reflected, "I believed, when we started out, that we were a team and I had to do as much as my husband did, not like some girls, they sit down, and then somebody has to throw sugar at them. I was always striving to do my share." On the numerous farms the two worked in various states during the early years of their marriage, Moses worked just as hard as her husband. In Virginia, for instance, she became well-known for her homemade butter which she made and sold on the large dairy farm they were hired to run. Much of the early years of Moses' marriage were also spent raising her children. She had ten children however five died at or shortly after their births.
In 1905, after nearly two decades working in the South, Moses and her family moved back home to New York settling on a farm in Eagle Bridge. The move proved fortuitous as it led Moses to start making art again. The inspiration to create occurred in 1918, when lacking wallpaper for her living room Moses decided to fill the wall space with a fireboard landscape. Enjoying the process so much she began to paint again, although at this point her works were most often only given as gifts to friends and family members, particular in holiday seasons and at Christmas time.
In 1927, Moses' beloved husband died unexpectedly from heart failure. Shortly before this, he had begun to encourage Moses to paint more often. Later, when her career began in earnest, she would credit her husband for her art, stating, "I am not superstitious or anything like that. But there is something like an overruling power...It was just as though he had something to do about this painting business." While her grown son took over the majority of the family's farm responsibilities after her husband's death, Moses was free to begin painting more steadily, turning often to subjects she knew best such as farm activities like the tapping of trees to get maple syrup, holiday gatherings, and depictions of the places where she had lived. She also drew inspiration from others' pictures and prints many of which she stored in a trunk for safekeeping and would refer to later as her "art secrets."
When she had amassed a decent number of paintings, and having failed to sell any at the local county fair, the then 78-year-old Moses was encouraged to include them in an exhibition of artwork by women in the community at Thomas' Drugstore, a local business. This simple act would launch Moses' professional career when in 1938, after being on view for almost a year, Louis Caldor, a New York City art collector driving through the area, saw her paintings. Impressed at her raw talent he purchased every work and, given her address, immediately went to Moses' farm to discuss her work. She was not home but her daughter-in-law told him to return tomorrow and Moses would show him another ten paintings. A nervous Moses, spent the night searching her house for more paintings and was forced to cut a large one in half to make two paintings and meet her quota (something Caldor would not realize for some time). Assuring her of her talent, Caldor purchased the ten paintings and returned to New York with the promise that he would get others excited about her art.
Caldor struggled early on however to get people to pay attention to Moses' paintings. Some found the work too simple or primitive, others found that it did not align with the then popular Surrealist and just developing Abstract Expressionist art movements; however Caldor persevered. In 1939 Moses was included in the exhibition "Contemporary Unknown American Painters" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Then, Caldor met Otto Kallir, the owner of a new gallery who was also drawn to the "folk" quality of Moses' work and her ability to capture the essence of American life. Kallir staged the artist's first solo show, "What A Farm Wife Painted," which opened on October 8, 1940 and provided Moses with her first true foothold in the American art scene. It was also in a review of this exhibition that a reporter referred to her as "Grandma Moses" a name which would stick and for which she would be affectionately known for the rest of her career.
The public quickly became enthralled with Moses and interest in her paintings grew. In 1940, she traveled with Carolyn Thomas, owner of the drugstore that first exhibited her work, to New York City where the famed Gimbels department store was holding an exhibit of her paintings. A large crowd gathered to hear her speak and she discussed not only her work but also the homemade jams and breads she had brought with her. In awe of the attention, Moses later stated, "they took me by surprise. I was in from the back woods, and I didn't know what they were up to. So while I thought I was talking to Mrs. Thomas, I spoke to 400 people at the Thanksgiving Forum in Gimbels' auditorium."
As Grandma Moses' popularity grew so did demands for her paintings and she became inundated with orders. Never truly embracing the "art world" she remained humble, even surprised at the interest in her work. Cleary states, "when asked about price, Grandma Moses would reply, 'Well, how big a picture do you want?' Smaller pictures as she saw it, should cost less, since they used up less paint." Even celebrities, coveted her work including Bob Hope who according to art historian Karal Ann Marling in his January 17, 1946 column, "...boasted that he had just bought a wintertime barnyard scene by the eminent G. Moses. 'It's so real that every time I walk through the living room I can smell wood-smoke,' he quipped. 'She knocks out a work of art faster than a chorus girl can put on her lipstick." Marling further describes how, legendary songwriter Cole Porter, supposedly, "...never went on the road without a big Grandma Moses snow scene to make his hotel suite seem like his home on the forty-first floor of the Waldorf Towers, where another winterscape by Moses always hung in the place of honor over the piano."
Unable to meet the growing demand, reproductions became an effective way to ensure everyone got to have a "Grandma Moses" of their own. The Hallmark greeting card company, for instance, profited greatly from an arrangement with the artist beginning in 1947 to create a set of holiday cards featuring reproductions of original Moses paintings. According to Marling, at the end of her life, Moses had sold 100 million Christmas cards. Marling further describes how, "Grandma Moses sympathized with people who could afford her cards but not the pictures that hung in galleries, so as a helpful tip she told them, 'If you put shellac over the [card],' she advised, 'no one can tell it from a real painting. It will give just as much pleasure - perhaps even more."
Moses' art was also turned into and inspired a wide range of other products including children's dresses, collector plates, aprons, fabrics, knitting bags, pillows, sewing boxes, and wallpaper. Perhaps the most unlikely product, given Moses' simple lifestyle, was a red lipstick by the Richard Hudnut Company. Referred to as "Primitive Red" it was inspired by the red in her Old Checkered House paintings. According to Marling the ad, which ran in all the popular fashion magazines of the period, had the tag line, "Primitive Red,' a red for the woman who knows as instinctively as a primitive painter stroking color on canvas. Pure, unblended red...basic as love and life."
In describing her appeal, Cleary states that, "by the end of the 1940s Grandma Moses' paintings had been included in more than 65 exhibits, and she had nearly 50 solo shows. Her name was a now household word in America, and after the end of World War II her reputation had spread abroad as well. By the 1950s major American museums were acquiring a 'Grandma Moses' for their collections." She also received many accolades including a Women's National Press Club Award in 1949 that was presented to her by President Harry S. Truman. Impressed by her spirit, the President invited her to a private party the next evening where, according to Cleary, "...she even managed to persuade him to play a bit on the piano. Afterwards she said that he reminded her of one of her own boys."
Moses' birthday parties also became major celebrations. The first, arranged as a publicity event by the Hallmark company for her 88th birthday, included a seven-foot-wide cake designed by artist and invited guest Norman Rockwell. While still quite removed from regular and fast-paced city life Moses initially did not know who Rockwell was. However with much in common, both interested in illustrating everyday American life, the two became good friends and Rockwell would frequent many future birthday parties. He even depicted Moses in the crowd for his 1948 Christmas painting featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, scenes for which he was particularly famous.
While her reputation grew, Moses remained true to the simple life she had always lived, quietly painting in her home. Kallir did however, manage to convince her to finally write her biography. Her memoir, Grandma Moses: My Life's History, was published in 1952 and interestingly focused little on the late years of her life as an artist and more on what she considered truly important, her childhood and years raising her family. The book is revealing and worthy of further attention, for as well as including detailed information about Moses' family life it also expresses ambivalence and feelings of conflict with regards to managing the demanding balancing act of life as a mother, wife, and artist.
Late-in-life television appearances also served to propel Moses' reputation. Famed actress Lilian Gish took on the role of playing the artist in the 1952 television series "Playhouse of the Stars" and the two became friends. In 1955, she appeared on "See It Now" and was interviewed by Edward R. Murrow. Her spunkiness and no-nonsense attitude, even about the winding down of her own life, was confirmed in an answer to his question of what she would do for the next twenty years to which she replied, "I am going up yonder. Naturally - naturally, I should. After you get to be about so old you can't expect to go on much further." Upon reflection in her final years, she said that the overarching feeling of her whole life was similar to the feeling she had after any productive hard working day, satisfied.
Moses continued to paint until after her 100th birthday, a day that New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller declared "Grandma Moses Day." The same year she took on a major project, illustrating a version of Clement Moore's The Night Before Christmas for Random House publishers.
In the first months of 1961, Moses' health began to fail and after falling several times, she was forced to live in a nursing home. Fiercely independent, Moses did not like this new arrangement and according to Cleary, upset that her doctor insisted she give up painting, "there were times when she was so annoyed with him that she would hide his stethoscope and refuse to reveal where it was unless he let her go back home." Her efforts proved futile however and in mid-December she died peacefully in her nursing home bed at the age of 101.
The loss of Grandma Moses was felt across America. Marling reasons, "because she had been enlivening the American breakfast table for what seemed to be forever with her quips and down-to-earth advice, the death of Grandma Moses was headline news in papers large and small. A New York shoe store observed her passing with a window display of three of her paintings (and no shoes); giant-sized crowds stood outside on Fifth Avenue in respectful silence." Her ability to capture the spirit of America was reinforced by then President John F. Kennedy who upon her death made an official statement, which read, "her passing takes away a beloved figure from American life. The directness and vividness of her paintings restored a primitive freshness to our perception of the American scene. All Americans mourn her loss. Both her work and her life helped our nation renew its pioneer heritage and recall its roots in the countryside and on the frontier."
The Legacy of Grandma Moses
While largely undervalued and overlooked by art world critics during her time, Grandma Moses was a widely popular artist in the eyes of the American public. Her art, created in a time when the country was rebuilding itself from the horrors of World War II, helped to remind viewers of a simpler time; a time of innocence, hard work, and family values.
Moses helped to break through the barriers of what is considered "art world elite." Challenging the notions of traditional painting (albeit in a different style), it was an arguably entirely modern effort not unlike other trailblazers of different movements that were simultaneously occurring at the same time. Painting in an untrained manner that refused to follow more traditional rules of classical art making, she elevated the status of naïve, folk, outsider, Art Brut, and primitive art styles. Painting in a "childlike" style was greatly respected during the latter decades of the twentieth century, epitomized by the ideas and careers of Jean Dubuffet and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Grandma Moses had started this powerful wave many years before. A hugely popular American painter, her art laid the foundation for other artists painting in these styles such as Vestie Davis, Howard Finster, Bryan Pearce, and Fred Yates.
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rebecca Baillie
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rebecca Baillie
First published on 23 Dec 2019. Updated and modified regularly