Grandma Moses on Creatively Keeping Busy

by Debra Eve | @DebraEve

Grandma Moses

Painting’s not important. The important thing is keeping busy.

Anna Mary Robertson was born before Lincoln took office. She died the year JFK was inaugurated.

She started painting at age 78 and sent her early works, along with her raspberry jam, to the Cambridge county fair. The jam won a ribbon. The paintings went unnoticed.

But she kept at it and painted thousands more, 25 after she turned 100. By then, some were worth $10,000. Now they go for a million.

Until her 101st birthday, she painted every day. Of course, you know her as Grandma Moses.

A Life From Lincoln to Kennedy

Anna Mary Robertson (1860-1961), also known as Grandma Moses, lived from the onset of the Civil War to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Can you imagine?

Mary, as she was known, was born on a farm in Greenwich, New York. In her autobiography, she recalls the joy and creativity of her early years. Her father would buy large sheets of white blank newsprint for Mary and her siblings to draw on. It cost only a penny and lasted longer than candy! But her artistic impulses had to wait another 65 years.

Her family hired her out to the neighbors at age 12. For 15 years, she cooked and cleaned for rich families, until she caught the eye of Thomas Moses, a hired hand at her farm. They wed and become tenant farmers in Virginia.

Mary Moses gave birth to ten children over the next 20 years. Five died as infants. She used her own money to buy a cow, made and sold butter to help with expenses. By 1905, Mary and Thomas bought their own farm in eastern New York and it prospered.

Thomas Moses died of a heart attack in 1927, when Mary was 67. Her youngest son Hugh and his wife took over the farm. Grandma Moses, as they called her, lived with them and picked up embroidery to keep busy. But by age 76, rheumatism made it too hard to hold a needle. She started painting instead.

“I had always wanted to paint, I just didn’t have time until I was 78.”

Grandma Moses, "The Pond"

Grandma Moses, “The Pond”

As first Grandma Moses copied prints and old post cards. You can see the Currier & Ives influence in her early works. But eventually she composed original scenes drawn entirely from childhood memories.

For two years, her paintings gathered dust at the local drugstore until art collector Louis Caldor meandered through town on holiday. Caldor bought all the drugstore’s paintings, then sought out Grandma Moses to buy more.

For a year, Caldor tried to drum up interest in her work. He entered three paintings in a New York Museum of Modern Art Exhibition called “Contemporary Unknown American Painters.” They were well-received.

Yet Caldor couldn’t find gallery space for her. When owners learned she was 78, they balked. Most felt she wouldn’t live long enough to recoup the expense of organizing a show.

“A primitive artist is an amateur whose work sells.”

Caldor finally persuaded art dealer Otto Kallir, a Viennese immigrant, to give her chance. “What a Farm Wife Painted” was an overwhelming success. For the next 21 years, Grandma Moses was the darling of the art world and the American public. Her simple, happy paintings created a yearning for the world before war and depression.

In 1946, sixteen million Grandma Moses Christmas cards sold. In 1953, Time magazine featured her on its cover.

In 1955, at age 95, she appeared on TV, an invention she could have never imagined. The show was called ”See It Live!” with Edward Murrow.

Grandma Moses, "Apple Butter Making"

Grandma Moses, “Apple Butter Making”

On screen, she’s completely self-assured. “Anyone can paint,” she tells Murrow. She demonstrates her technique — “first the sky, then the mountains, then the hills, then the trees, then the houses, then the cattle and then the people” — and hands the brush to Murrow. He botches it, trying to balance the paintbrush and a cigarette in the same hand. She smiles at the camera.

She charmed wherever she traveled. Newspaper accounts called her “cheerful as a cricket” and described her “mischievous gray eyes and a quick wit.”

New York Governor Rockefeller proclaimed her 100th and 101st birthdays “Grandma Moses Days.” She died a few months after her 101st of hardening of the arteries. Her doctor said, “She just wore out.”

I remember, as a child, studying her paintings. “I can do that,” I thought. I didn’t get it then. Now, looking at her scenes and luminous color choices leaves me feeling peaceful and nostalgic. It wasn’t her technique, but the era and the emotions she evoked, that made her famous and well-loved.

But even if she hadn’t attained fame, you can bet Grandma Moses would have kept painting. She allowed her “disability” to fashion how she held a brush and expressed her memories. Her 21-year career rivaled that of many younger artists.

Perhaps more than anyone else, this self-taught farm girl proved the phrase “it’s never too late” a rich source of hope.

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. And life is what we make it, always has been, always will be. ~Grandma Moses


Grandma Moses’ Obituary in the New York Times.

If you have time, here’s a five-minute video highlighting her work to a very fitting Willie Nelson soundtrack. Note that the first few show her early needlepoint pieces. (Email and RSS readers can click here.)

And don’t miss this comic strip on being an artist! It’s the best thing I’ve seen all week.

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