Moses, Anna "Grandma" (1860–1961)

views updated

Moses, Anna "Grandma" (1860–1961)

American farmwife who became a nationally renowned painter of traditional scenes while in her 70s. Name variations: Grandma Moses. Born Anna Mary Robertson on September 7, 1860, near Greenwich, New York; died on December 13, 1961, in Hoosick Falls, New York; daughter of Russell King Robertson ("a farmer and an inventer and believer in refinement") and Margaret (Shanahan) Robertson (daughter of Irish immigrants); educated sporadically in local country schools; married Thomas Salmon Moses (a farmer), on November 9, 1887 (died 1927); children: ten (five died in infancy), including Anna (d. 1932), Winona, Hugh, Forrest and one other son.

Selected primary works:

Apple Pickers; Sugaring Off; Out for the Christmas Trees; Catching the Thanksgiving Turkey; The Old Oaken Bucket; The Old Checkered House; Black Horses; From My Window. In 1935, at age 75, began to paint seriously and had her first one-woman show in October 1940.

Eighty years before the art world would recognize "Grandma Moses," Russell and Margaret Shanahan Robertson welcomed Anna Mary Robertson into their family of ten on September 7, 1860. Though Moses' childhood began during the Civil War, she remembered her first ten years as idyllic ones spent amid the "green meadows and wild woods" on the family farm near Greenwich, New York, in upstate Washington County. Some days she watched her immigrant grandfather Gregory Shanahan ply his trade as a shoemaker, and on others, she helped her mother with household chores, which included rocking her baby sister's cradle and learning to sew. In her free time, she "sported" with her brothers, floating rafts on the mill pond, roaming the woods to gather wild flowers, and building "air castles." Surrounded by relatives on all sides, Moses identified with her Scotch-Irish heritage. Later in life, she remembered all the stories she heard as a child about her orphaned grandmother Bridget Devereaux , who had immigrated from Ireland around 1836, and about her paternal relatives, who had arrived in time to see their son Hezekiah King fight the Redcoats at Ticonderoga in 1777. "From the Kings I got art," said Moses, "from the Robertsons inventive faculty, from the Shanahans thrift, [from] the Devereaux generosity."

Anna turned ten in 1870, after which began what she called the "hard years." Following the Civil War, the nation entered an economic slump during which farmers were particularly hard hit. Moses usually kept busy helping at home or aiding her neighbors. At sporadic intervals, she attended school, which was held for three months in winter and three months in summer. Little girls attended only during the warm summer session so her schooling was, as she termed it, "limited." One school memory pertained to map-drawing exercises; she had a particular way of drawing mountains on the map which her teacher praised. In fact, he asked to keep the set of maps.

I would draw the picture, then color it with grape juice or berries any thing that was red and pretty in my way of thinking.

—Anna "Grandma" Moses

Moses found she had a flair for drawing, encouraged by her father who bought newsprint at a penny a sheet on which the children drew. Once she received some carpenter's blue and red chalk to take the place of her berry hues, a gift that made her feel "rich." Eventually, she dabbled in oil paint and rendered "lamb scapes," as her brothers called them, beneath brilliant sunsets. Her mother thought the young girl could find more profitable ways to spend her time, however, and at age 12 Moses went to work as a hired girl to earn her own living. She stayed with a local couple, "well along in years," nursing the invalid wife until her death; she also kept house, cooked, served dinner parties, and drove the rig to Sunday service for the husband. When this job ended, she drifted from job to job, caring for the sick and doing the work of a "hired girl." Eventually, she met Thomas Salmon Moses, a farmer by trade, and married him on November 9, 1887. She viewed marriage as an equal partnership, "a team," although, as she later admitted, at times she was the boss.

The young couple headed south to take charge of a horse ranch in South Carolina; in the course of their trip, Moses later said, they were "kidnapped" and "perswaded" to settle in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia near Staunton. They remained there one year before moving down the valley to work on a dairy farm. At Staunton, she bought a cow, "the foundation of my million dollars." With the opportunity of the new dairy farm and her cow, Moses was soon producing 160 pounds of butter a week. Always thrifty, she had saved her earnings as a hired girl and now saved again. Her money-generating enterprises included making potato chips, a novelty in the late 19th century, and charging her husband interest when he borrowed $360 from her. In 1905, having saved enough to buy their own land, and homesick for New York, they moved back there and bought a farm near her roots in Eagle Bridge, Rensselaer County. There they again ran a dairy farm.

During the years of hard work and uncertainty in South Carolina, Anna Moses had given birth to ten children. When they returned north, she had to leave "five little graves" behind. Soon her surviving children married and moved away. Though her parents both died in 1909, her grandchildren, 11 in all, brightened her life. When her husband died on January 15, 1927, her youngest son Hugh and his wife Dorothy moved in to help her run the farm. As well, Moses took in boarders and raised chickens to augment the family income. When in 1932, her daughter Anna died, Moses went to Vermont to help raise Anna's children. She returned to Eagle Bridge in 1935, and at age 75, now known as Grandma Moses, found a little more time to pursue her own interests and develop her talents.

Moses always felt a need to capture and preserve her surroundings and memories. Sometimes this preservation resulted in actual preserves, such as her canned fruits and raspberry jam. At other times, her preservation depicted her surroundings. For Moses, the conservation in both mediums seemed interchangeable. "I exhibited a few at the Cambridge Fair…. I won a prize for my fruit and jam, but no pictures."

The pictures she painted were often as utilitarian as they were decorative. In 1918, she had once painted the fireboard when she ran out of wallpaper, having seen her father paint murals on the wall in lieu of wallpaper many years before. Sometimes her canvas was the old window of a caboose or the cover of a threshing machine. She also decorated her own furniture on occasion, for example, the pictures she painted on her "tip-top" table, which she later used as an easel. This periodic painting, begun before her husband's death, was just one manner of self-expression. When her daughter asked for a worsted picture, Moses stitched her a panorama, using worsted yarn in much the same way as she would later paint. Some later paintings, including

Autumn in the Berkshires and By the Sea, actually depicted the same scenes as previous worsted pictures. Only when her arthritis became too painful after the death of her husband did she heed her sister's advice and make oil painting her primary medium.

Grandma Moses found her inspiration in the scenes around her, though in literal terms she often used Currier & Ives for ideas, or half-tones from newspapers and magazines. After outlining with pencil the section she wished to recreate, she then superimposed one or more images into her painting. She used whatever was at hand to create her pictures, including match sticks for fine work. Her technique was to apply separate brush strokes, as one would use embroidery floss, to create a three-dimensional effect.

By 1935, Moses found she had enough paintings to display them locally. Scenes like The Old Oaken Bucket were well received by her friends and neighbors, and she often recreated a painting at the request of an acquaintance. In 1938, amateur art collector Louis J. Caldor saw four of her paintings displayed in the local pharmacy and asked if there were more. The druggist handed him another ten, and with these tucked under his arm Caldor set off to find the artist. After meeting Grandma Moses, he departed for New York.

Caldor displayed her work for a year. In October 1939, he managed to get three paintings included in an exhibition of "Contemporary Unknown American Painters" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Little came of that show, but another modern art dealer, Otto Kallir, liked what he saw and set up a solo-artist exhibition entitled "What a Farm Wife Painted" at New York City's Galerie St. Etienne. Only 4 of the 34 paintings displayed sold, but Gimbels' Department Store used the rest as part of a "Thanksgiving Festival" display.

The diminutive 80-year-old Moses, who was greeted by a hall full of women when she attended the show, seemed overwhelmed by the attention. Regaling her audience with stories of how she made her other "preserves," Moses then produced jars from her pockets as samples. "Grandma Moses Just Paints and Makes No Fuss About It" proclaimed one newspaper, and the public opened their hearts to her. As for the artist, she returned home to Eagle Bridge.

An exhibition in Washington, D.C., in early 1941 received good reviews but little else. Later that year, The Old Oaken Bucket won a prize from the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts. Soon the paintings by the American "primitive" were in high demand. Sightseers dropped by her house to buy paintings and visit with the artist. Collectors vied for her work, and she was invited to many group exhibitions. Songwriter Cole Porter collected her work, and comedian Bob Hope lauded her spirit and "willingness to tackle something new."

By 1944, Kallir was displaying her work through traveling exhibitions which reached a broader public. Two years later, Moses signed an agreement with Brundage Cards for a line of greeting cards, and Grandma Moses: American Primitive was published. By 1947, the book was in reprints, Hallmark Cards had obtained her contract, and magazine articles about her were flooding the marketplace. Grandma Moses became an American icon. Her first radio broadcast for CBS took place in 1946; her television debut came in 1948. In 1950, a television documentary featuring Moses and narrated by Archibald MacLeish was nominated for an Academy Award. Lillian Gish portrayed her in a biographical dramatization in 1952, the same year Moses' autobiography My Life's History was released. In 1955, Edward R. Murrow interviewed her. Her work reached Europe with an exhibition in 1954–55. All in all, Moses was the subject of nearly 150 solo shows and another 100 group exhibitions. Presidents began to favor her work, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, who received a commissioned painting in 1956. Harry S. Truman had been in yearly contact with her since their meeting in 1949. Even the new young president John F. Kennedy greeted her in 1961.

Typically, Moses could not understand the fuss when periodicals and people saluted her on her 100th birthday in 1960 and New York's governor Nelson A. Rockefeller declared it Grandma Moses Day. Though she danced a jig at her centennial, her health was failing. She became seriously ill in May 1961, and on July 18 was taken to the Health Center in Hoosick, New York. She nonetheless still wanted to paint, and her unauthorized forays caused her to be restrained to her bed. Pent up and frustrated, she celebrated her 101st birthday, though increasingly her mind wandered and she slept. On December 13, 1961, she died at the Health Center of arteriosclerotic heart disease.

During her career, Grandmas Moses completed approximately 2,000 paintings. She died an American legend, and in the years thereafter her art was viewed by more and more people. Grandma Moses found remarkable acceptance in an era that favored abstract expressionism and modern art like that created by Jackson Pollack. In a society threatened by nuclear destruction and just beginning to understand the ramifications of the Second World War, the art of Grandma Moses harked back to a simpler time. For people who had never experienced such a life, it was easy to idealize the common experiences of those who had worked the land of Jeffersonian America.

Grandma Moses is perhaps easier to understand as a symbol than as an artist. Clearly her art was atypical in the mid-20th century, yet it

was embraced by millions. Her palette consisted of those colors she liked, so good she could "almost eat them." Her canvas, she wrote, was "masonite tempered presd wood, the harder the better," which she covered with linseed oil and three coats of flat white paint. Her subjects were the people and places she knew and grew up with, the backbone of American folk art. Her technique was part George Seurat pointillism and part Claude Monet impressionism, though she developed it on her own. As she aged, her attention to color and style changed. Her color, detail, and energy invigorated her paintings and invited the viewer into their scenes.

Anna "Grandma" Moses stands out in many ways. The development of her artistic talent while she was a septuagenarian is in itself unusual. But perhaps the most outstanding feature of her life is its very "normalcy." Grandma Moses always lived up to her responsibilities; she generally did what was expected of her and was the epitome of a "good" farmwife of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet her style, flair, and originality were such that an enforced wait of 75 years served only to enrich the talent and the memories she brought to her easel on the "tip-top" table.


Eaton, Allen H. "Meadows and Wildwood of Grandma Moses, Her Life and Work Into Her 102nd Year." Unpublished manuscript.

Kallir, Jane. Grandma Moses: The Artist Behind the Myth. Secaucus, NJ: Wellfleet Press, 1982.

Kallir, Otto, ed. Grandma Moses: American Primitive. NY: Dryden Press, 1946.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

Yglesias, Helen. "Grandma Moses—Farmwife into Legend," in Starting Over: Early, Anew, Over and Late. NY: Rawson, Wade, 1978.

suggested reading:

Armstrong, William H. Barefoot in the Grass: The Story of Grandma Moses. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.

Graves, Charles. Grandma Moses, Favorite Painter. Champagne, IL: Garrard, 1969.

Michaela Crawford Reaves , Professor of History, California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, California