Grandma Moses Started Painting Seriously at Age 77, and Soon Became a Famous American Artist

As an artis­tic child grow­ing up on a farm in the 1860s and ear­ly 1870s, Anna Mary Robert­son (1860–1961) used ground ochre, grass, and berry juice in place of tra­di­tion­al art sup­plies. She was so lit­tle, she referred to her efforts as “lamb­scapes.” Her father, for whom paint­ing was also a hob­by, kept her and her broth­ers sup­plied with paper:

He liked to see us draw pic­tures, it was a pen­ny a sheet and last­ed longer than can­dy.

She left home and school at 12, serv­ing as a full-time, live-in house­keep­er for the next 15 years. She so admired the Cur­ri­er & Ives prints hang­ing in one of the homes where she worked that her employ­ers set her up with wax crayons and chalk, but her duties left lit­tle time for leisure activ­i­ties.

Free time was in even short­er sup­ply after she mar­ried and gave birth to ten chil­dren — five of whom sur­vived past infan­cy. Her cre­ative impulse was con­fined to dec­o­rat­ing house­hold items, quilt­ing, and embroi­der­ing gifts for fam­i­ly and friends.

At the age of 77 (cir­ca 1937), wid­owed, retired, and suf­fer­ing from arthri­tis that kept her from her accus­tomed house­hold tasks, she again turned to paint­ing.

Set­ting up in her bed­room, she worked in oils on masonite prepped with three coats of white paint, draw­ing on such youth­ful mem­o­ries as quilt­ing bees, hay­ing, and the annu­al maple sug­ar har­vest for sub­ject mat­ter, again and again.

Thomas’ Phar­ma­cy in Hoosick Falls, New York exhib­it­ed some of her out­put, along­side oth­er local wom­en’s hand­i­crafts. It failed to attract much atten­tion, until art col­lec­tor Louis J. Cal­dor wan­dered in dur­ing a brief sojourn from Man­hat­tan and acquired them all for an aver­age price tag of $4.

The next year (1939), Mrs. Moses, as she was then known, was one of sev­er­al “house­wives” whose work was includ­ed in the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art’s exhib­it “Con­tem­po­rary Unknown Amer­i­can Painters”.  The empha­sis was def­i­nite­ly on the untaught out­sider. In addi­tion to occu­pa­tion, the cat­a­logue list­ed the non-Cau­casian artists’ race…

In short order, Anna Mary Robert­son Moses had a solo exhi­bi­tion in the same gallery that would give Gus­tav Klimt and Egon Schiele their first Amer­i­can one-per­son shows, Otto Kallir’s Galerie St. Eti­enne.

In review­ing the 1940 show, the New York Her­ald Tri­bune’s crit­ic cit­ed the folksy nick­name (“Grand­ma Moses”) favored by some of the artist’s neigh­bors. Her whole­some rur­al bonafides cre­at­ed an unex­pect­ed sen­sa­tion. The pub­lic flocked to see a table set with her home­made cakes, rolls, bread and prize-win­ning pre­serves as part of a Thanks­giv­ing-themed meet-and-greet with the artist at Gim­bels Depart­ment Store the fol­low­ing month.

As crit­ic and inde­pen­dent cura­tor Judith Stein observes in her essay “The White Haired Girl: A Fem­i­nist Read­ing”:

In gen­er­al, the New York press dis­tanced the artist from her cre­ative iden­ti­ty. They com­man­deered her from the art world, fash­ion­ing a rich pub­lic image that brimmed with human interest…Although the artist’s fam­i­ly and friends addressed her as “Moth­er Moses” and “Grand­ma Moses” inter­change­ably, the press pre­ferred the more famil­iar and endear­ing form of address. And “Grand­ma” she became, in near­ly all sub­se­quent pub­lished ref­er­ences. Only a few pub­li­ca­tions by-passed the new locu­tion: a New York Times Mag­a­zine fea­ture of April 6, 1941; a Harper’s Bazaar arti­cle; and the land­mark They Taught Them­selves: Amer­i­can Prim­i­tive Painters of the 20th Cen­tu­ry, by the respect­ed deal­er and cura­tor Sid­ney Janis, referred to the artist as “Moth­er Moses,” a title that con­veyed more dig­ni­ty than the col­lo­qui­al diminu­tive “Grand­ma.”

But “Grand­ma Moses” had tak­en hold. The avalanche of press cov­er­age that fol­lowed had lit­tle to do with the pro­bity of art com­men­tary. Jour­nal­ists found that the artist’s life made bet­ter copy than her art. For exam­ple, in a dis­cus­sion of her debut, an Art Digest reporter gave a charm­ing, if sim­pli­fied, account of the gen­e­sis of Moses’ turn to paint­ing, recount­ing her desire to give the post­man “a nice lit­tle Christ­mas gift.” Not only would the dear fel­low appre­ci­ate a paint­ing, con­clud­ed Grand­ma, but “it was eas­i­er to make than to bake a cake over a hot stove.” After quot­ing from Genauer and oth­er favor­able reviews in the New York papers, the report con­clud­ed with a folksy sup­po­si­tion: “To all of which Grand­ma Moses per­haps shakes a bewil­dered head and repeats, ‘Land’s Sakes’.” Flip­pant­ly deem­ing the artist’s achieve­ments a mark­er of social change, he not­ed: “When Grand­ma takes it up then we can be sure that art, like the bobbed head, is here to stay.”

Urban sophis­ti­cates were besot­ted with the plain­spo­ken, octo­ge­nar­i­an farm wid­ow who was scan­dal­ized by the “extor­tion prices” they paid for her work in the Galerie St. Eti­enne. As Tom Arthur writes in a blog devot­ed to New York State his­tor­i­cal mark­ers:

New York­ers found that, once wartime gaso­line rationing end­ed, Eagle Bridge made a nice excur­sion des­ti­na­tion for a week­end trip. Local res­i­dents were usu­al­ly will­ing to talk to out­siders about their local celebri­ty and give direc­tions to her farm. There they would meet the artist, who was a delight to talk to, and either buy or order paint­ings from her. Songwriter/impresario Cole Porter became a reg­u­lar cus­tomer, order­ing sev­er­al paint­ings every year to give to friends around Christ­mas. 

In the two-and‑a half decades between pick­ing her paint­brush back up and her death at the age of 101, she pro­duced over 1600 images, always start­ing with the sky and mov­ing down­ward to depict tidy fields, well kept hous­es, and tiny, hard work­ing fig­ures com­ing togeth­er as a com­mu­ni­ty. In the above doc­u­men­tary she alludes to oth­er artists known to depict­ing “trou­ble”… such as live­stock bust­ing out of their enclo­sures.

She pre­ferred to doc­u­ment scenes in which every­one was seen to be behav­ing.

Remark­ably, MoMA exhib­it­ed Grand­ma Moses’ work at the same time as Picasso’s Guer­ni­ca.

In a land and in a life where a woman can grow old with fear­less­ness and beau­ty, it is not strange that she should become an artist at the end. — poet Archibald MacLeish


Read Judith Stein’s fas­ci­nat­ing essay in its entire­ty here.

See more of Grand­ma Moses’ work here, and her por­trait on TIME mag­a­zine in 1953.

Relat­ed Con­tent

How Leo Tol­stoy Learned to Ride a Bike at 67, and Oth­er Tales of Life­long Learn­ing

The Long Game of Cre­ativ­i­ty: If You Haven’t Cre­at­ed a Mas­ter­piece at 30, You’re Not a Fail­ure

What Does It Take to Be a Great Artist?: An Aging Painter Reflects on His Cre­ative Process & Why He Will Nev­er Be a Picas­so

Free Art & Art His­to­ry Cours­es

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Matthew Currie says:

    I urge any­one who has the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see some of her paint­ings in real life. Many are in the muse­um in Ben­ning­ton, VT. If you’ve seen them only in repro­duc­tion, though they’re pret­ty much all there, there is some­thing in the depth and impact lost. In per­son, and in their orig­i­nal form, it’s clear­er why Moses was not just a doc­u­men­tar­i­an of a bygone time, but a real artist.

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