Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961) was the most popular and successful American self-taught artist of the twentieth century. Known as "Grandma" Moses and "Mother Moses", this unassuming elderly farm woman from New York caught the attention of the public in the States and abroad with her "country-side paradise" paintings.
She began painting in earnest when she was seventy-eight. She first exhibited as "Mrs. Moses". However, after a journalist discovered that she was known locally as "Grandma Moses" the nickname appeared in print, and stuck. About her:
The simple realism, nostalgic atmosphere and luminous color with which Grandma Moses portrayed homely farm life and rural countryside won her a wide following. She was able to capture the excitement of winter's first snow, Thanksgiving preparations and the new, young green of oncoming spring . . . Grandma Moses charmed wherever she went. A tiny, lively woman with mischievous gray eyes and a quick wit, she could be sharp-tongued with a sycophant and stern with an errant grandchild." (The New York Times, 14 December 1961)
This means she got popular for naive retrospect scenes of rural life in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
She had only sporadic periods of schooling during her childhood, but was awarded two honorary doctoral degrees after she begun painting in her late seventies. That was after arthritis had made needle-work painful for her.
Here is how it happened, in a nutshell: When she was twelve she left her parents' farm and began to work for a wealthy neighbouring family, doing chores on their farm. She continued to keep house, cook and sew for wealthy families for fifteen years. One of the families that she worked for noticed her interest in their Currier and Ives prints and bought chalk and wax crayons so that she could create her own artwork. When she was twenty-seven she worked on the same farm as Thomas Salmon Moses, a "hired man". They married in 1887, first farmed in Virginia, and in 1905 moved to a farm in New York, near her birthplace. Thomas died in 1927, and Anna continued to farm with the help of her youngest son Forrest for about nine years. With advancing age she moved to a daughter's home in 1936.
As a child she had drawn pictures and coloured them with the juice of berries and grapes. As a young wife and mother, Anna had been creative in decorating her home. After her husband died in 1927, she made worsted-embroidered pictures for friends and family, beginning in 1932. She also created quilted objects, a form of "hobby art". Then, when arthritis made embroidery painful, her sister Celestia suggested to her that painting would be easier for her. It spurred Anna's painting career in her late 70s.
After she started painting, at first she copied illustrated postcards and prints. Gradually she began to re-create scenes from her childhood, as in Apple Pickers (c. 1940), Sugaring-Off in the Maple Orchard (1940), Catching the Thanksgiving Turkey (1943), and Over the River to Grandma's House (c. 1944). She explained her way of working:
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. I look back on my life like a good day's work, it was done and I am satisfied with it. I was happy and contented, I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered. [In The New York Times (14 December 1961)]
Mrs Moses painted scenes of rural life from earlier days, which she called "old-timey" New England landscapes. She omitted features of modern life from her works of art. As her career advanced she created complicated, panoramic compositions of rural life. Her winter paintings may remind one of winter paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Prolific as she ws, she made 1,500 - 2,000 paintings, most of them on masonite board. Her early paintings were given away or sold for small sums - three to five dollars for a painting, depending on its size.
In 1939 an art collector saw her paintings hanging in a drugstore window in Hoosick Falls, New York, liked them and drove to her farm and bought her remaining stock of 15 paintings. In October that year three of those paintings were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in a show titled "Contemporary, Unknown Painters."
From the beginning Grandma Moses's work got favourable criticism. Her paintings were shown throughout the United States and Europe in some 150 solo shows and 100 group exhibits.
As her fame increased her works were sold for 8,000 to 10,000 dollars. Her paintings were reproduced on Hallmark greeting cards, tiles, fabrics, and ceramics. They were also used to market products, like coffee, lipstick, cigarettes, and cameras.
About forty years after her death, her 1943 work Sugaring Off was sold for 1.2 million dollars (in November 2006).
Grandma Mose's naive style is labelled "American Primitive" by art historians. It has been acclaimed for its purity of colour, its attention to detail, and its vigour. Her autobiography, My Life's History, was published in 1952.
The Art historian Judith Stein noted that "her sense of accomplishment in her painting was rooted in her ability to make 'something from nothing.'" Also, "A cultural icon, the spry, productive nonagenarian was continually cited as an inspiration for housewives, widows and retirees."
In her autobiography, My Life's History from 1952, she says, "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." (In The New York Times, 14 December 1961)
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.
Eleanor Early noted, "Grandma Moses remains prouder of her preserves than of her paintings, and proudest of all of her four children, eleven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren."
Anna Mary Moses died on December 13, 1961 at 101 years of age at the Health Center in Hoosick Falls, New York. John F. Kennedy memorialised her: "The directness and vividness of her paintings restored a primitive freshness to our perception of the American scene."
After her death, her work was exhibited in several large travelling exhibitions in the United States and abroad.
Some more Grandma Moses Quotations
I look out the window sometimes to seek the color of the shadows and the different greens in the trees, but when I get ready to paint I just close my eyes and imagine a scene. (In TIME magazine, Vol. 52, 1948)
Painting's not important. The important thing is keeping busy. (In New Leaves (1986) by Louise Matteoni)
I paint from the top down. From the sky, then the mountains, then the hills, then the houses, then the cattle, and then the people. (In Tampa Bay Magazine, Jan.-Feb. 2008: 205)
A primitive artist is an amateur whose work sells. (In Grandma Moses, American Primitive: Forty Paintings (1947) by Otto Kallir)
If I hadn't started painting, I would have raised chickens. (In Grandma Moses, American Primitive: Forty Paintings (1947) by Otto Kallir)