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Grandma Moses: Acclaimed Self-Taught ‘Primitive’ Artist Who Started Painting In Her Late Seventies


On this day, 7th of September, 1860, Anna Mary Robertson Moses was born in Greenwich, New York, US. She was the third of ten children born to Russell King Robertson, a farmer, and Margaret Shannahan. Due to lack of warm cloths, Anna Moses attended school only in the summer. At the age of 12 she left home to work as a hired farm girl. At the age of 26, while working for James Family she met Thomas Moses in 1886. The two fell in love and got married the next year. The couple moved to Virginia where they rented farms and worked the land. Anna gave birth to ten children but five of them died as babies. After some years Thomas became homesick, so he asked his wife to move back towards north. Eventually they returned to New York and bought a farm there. By this time, Anna was called Mother Moses. She was skilled at various tasks and enjoyed doing needlework such as sewing and embroidering. With needle and thread she would make pictures on fabric, but she had developed arthritis, which made it painful for her to push the needle with through the fabric. In her late seventies, she decided to take up painting which was easier on her hands, as compared to needlework. She made her first painting using house paint.


Due to the artist being self-taught her paintings display a lack of nuanced application of Western painting conventions. For this reason, she is categorized as a ‘primitive’ or ‘naïve’ painter under art scholarship, terms synonymous with ‘outsider artist’. Moses’s journey shows that age is not a bar for learning, and that if you’re truly passionate about something, you can reap the rewards of your efforts at any age. Many of Moses’s paintings drew directly from her own life — mainly scenes from the landscape around her. In 1938, her paintings got displayed at a local drug store where an art collector Louis J. Caldor saw them and bought them all for a few dollars each. He inquired about the painter, contacted Moses and bought ten more paintings directly from her. He then arranged to have three of them shown at the New York Museum of Modern Art at an exhibition titles, ‘Contemporary Unknown American Painters’, where they attracted wide public attention, leading to her fame. The works were also spotted by the Austrian-American art historian Otto Kallir at the exhibition, and he was highly appreciative of their inherent folk quality. Pleased with her work, Otto curated first solo show titled, ‘What A Farm Wife Painted’ in 1940 at the Galerie St. Etienne in New York. It was at this show that a reporter gave her the nickname, ‘Grandma Moses’.


The New York Times said of her the following: \”The simple realism, nostalgic atmosphere and luminous color with which Grandma Moses portrayed simple 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… In person, 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.\”

Most of the artist’s paintings depicted scenes from upstate New York and Vermont. Several paintings show a particular ’checkered house’. She painted many scenes depicting farm life. Her paintings told stories about making apple butter, making soap and maple syrup, husking corn, and making candles. ‘The Quilting Bee’ shows how women would meet and visit while they made quilts.

Grandma Moses was awarded two honorary doctoral degrees. The first was bestowed in 1949 by Russell Sage College and the second, two years later by the Moore College of Art and Design. She passed away on December 13, 1961, in a medical center in Hoosick Falls, New York. Her works are included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Bennington Museum in Vermont. Her work ‘Sugaring Off’ sold at Christie\’s New York \’Important American Paintings\’ in 2006 for $1,360,000.


In her autobiographical book Grandma Moses: My Life’s History (1951), the artist testified the incredible strength and determination to fulfill her own life. She said, “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. 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. And life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.”


So, if you think you are too old to pursue your dreams, think of Grandma Moses, and know in your heart it may not be too late for you.


1) study.com

2) artlark.org

3) en.wikipedia.org

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