Grandma Moses

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: A self-taught artist, Grandma Moses developed a distinctive style of painting, a form of Primitivism also referred to as naïve art or folk art.

Early Life

Anna Mary Robertson, of Scotch-Irish descent, was born on September 7, 1860, on a farm in Washington County, in eastern New York. Her parents were Russell King Robertson, a flax grower, and Margaret Shannahan. Anna Mary was the third of ten children. Her parents called her Sissy, her siblings, Molly, and her husband, Mary, but to the world she was known as Grandma Moses.

In her autobiography, she described the pleasures of her childhood and the work on the farm. Her memories of these happy days, as she called them, were the resources upon which she drew for her art. She learned early to express herself in a creative way. She remembered how her father liked to see his children occupy themselves with drawing. He would buy large sheets of white blank newspaper that cost only a penny. Paper was cheaper than candy and lasted longer.

Her school days were limited. At the age of twelve, Anna Mary left home to earn her living as a hired girl, working neighborhood farms for the next fifteen years. In November of 1887, she married Thomas Salmon Moses, a hired man who worked on the same farm. On their wedding day, they left New York to settle on a dairy farm in Staunton, Virginia. They had ten children, only five of whom survived.

In December, 1905, the family returned to eastern New York and bought a farm at Eagle Bridge. For the next twenty-two years, Anna Mary’s main occupation was to work on the farm, care for the family, and keep up their house. On one occasion, she was wallpapering the parlor when she ran out of paper. Her solution became her first known painting. She applied some white paper to the empty space and painted a landscape, the Fireboard (1918). It is housed in the Bennington Museum.

When her husband died in 1927, her youngest son, Hugh, and daughter-in-law Dorothy took over the farm. She now had fewer responsibilities. She enjoyed embroidery, creating worsted yarn landscape pictures that she composed herself. When her rheumatism made embroidering difficult, she turned to painting. These were mainly done for amusement and given as gifts to friends. Sometimes she sold a few with her homemade preserves and jams in the Women’s Exchange in the W. D. Thomas Pharmacy in Hoosick Falls.

Life’s Work

The turning point in Grandma Moses’ artistic career came in 1938. Louis J. Caldor, an art collector and engineer, is credited with discovering her talent. He had stopped in Hoosick Falls while on vacation. As he walked by the Thomas Pharmacy, he noticed the Moses paintings in the window. He bought three and inquired where he could buy more. The prices were reasonable, usually between $3 and $5. Moses priced her paintings according to size. When Caldor left for New York the next day, he had an additional ten pictures, some painted and some embroidered in yarn.

The subjects of Moses’ paintings were memories of scenes and events she knew well. Landscape paintings of the four seasons dominate: white for winter paintings, light green for spring, deep green for summer, and brown and yellow for fall. Her early paintings were strongly influenced by illustrations, such as Currier and Ives lithographs, which she found in magazines. Sometimes she cut out figures that she moved around to find a composition that pleased her. Her usual practice was to work from memory, without a preliminary sketch.

Caldor tried for a year to interest someone in the Moses pictures. When he heard about the exhibition “Contemporary Unknown American Painters” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, from October 18 to November 18, 1939, Caldor entered three paintings: Home, In the Maple Sugar Days, and The First Automobile.

In 1940, these paintings were included in the artist’s first solo exhibition. Caldor had finally located an art dealer, Otto Kallir, who was interested in folk art and who agreed to arrange an exhibition. Kallir selected thirty-three paintings and one worsted picture. The exhibition “What a Farm Wife Painted” was held at Kallir’s gallery, St. Etienne, in New York, from October 9 to October 31, 1940. The artist, who had just turned eighty, did not come to the opening; as she said, she knew all the paintings.

An art critic in the New York Herald Tribune, on October 8, 1940, noted that in Washington County the artist was known as Grandma Moses. This was the first time the name appeared in print.

The reaction to her work was overwhelmingly positive. Requests came from everywhere for her paintings, in the beginning mainly for copies. This explains why so many paintings have the same or similar names, such as...

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