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

Sources

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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Leave a Comment

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

Patricia @ Pollywog Creek

Thank you for this post, Debra. It’s HUGE encouragement for me.

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Debra Eve

Thanks, Patricia! You know, I started writing it about 10 months ago, but put it away because it seemed too cliched. Glad I went back to it!

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Sandra Heska King

Thank you, Patricia, for sending me here. Wonderful story and yes, a big encouragement. It gives hope to us late bloomers. So glad to have found this blog, Debra. Can’t wait to explore it.

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Debra Eve

Sandra, so great to connect! Was just reading your site, and I want to encourage your writing. Your poetry is just beautiful and that 150-year-old farmhouse? Sounds like you and your family live in a Grandma Moses painting!

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Lindsay

I love that photograph of Grandma Moses. There is woman in the midst of creative contentment.

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Debra Eve

And not giving a fig what anyone may think. When you read her autobiography, you realize she gave herself over to her memories and her environment in a completely unique way. Primitive? Yes. Genius? Yes again. Thanks, Lindsay!

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Dave Doolin

This is intensely motivating as I’m working in the plateau region of a mastery curve.

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Debra Eve

Dave, I read somewhere that she made over 1500 paintings. It’s easy to dismiss the “simplicity” of her work (as I did as a child), but when you look at it, the detail is astonishing. I’ve taken on board your quest for mastery over a lifetime (interestingly, it’s my bass-playing husband Dave’s quest also), and have begun formulating ideas for a series on that. You’ve inspired me in so many ways! Thanks for the support.

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Daniela

Love the sharply alive intelligent eyes (end of vid). Especially loved the opening quote. Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? Totally inspired. Thanks for this.

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Debra Eve

Thanks, Daniela. She’s amazing, isn’t she? I always thought her a cliche because she comes up so often in discussions of “late bloomers.” But she’s the real deal and thank goodness they DIDN’T break the mold after her.

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Daphne Gray-Grant

It’s NEVER too late to create. My mother (who had started as a weaver and a potter in the 1940s then became a stay-at-home mom) took up “painting” (with pastels) at age 68. She produced amazing work and had several art shows before she died at at 75. It was a source of great joy and satisfaction to her and to all her children.

I am a non-fiction writer and writing coach and although I have been doing it since the age of 19, I am embarking on my first efforts at fiction at age 54.

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Debra Eve

Hi, Daphne and welcome! I want to know more about your mom…and you! Just perused your site and love it. In fact, subscribed. I had the wackadoodle experience recently of becoming a Kindle best seller and now I have to take it all seriously :) Thanks for stopping by.

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Cathy | Treatment Talk

Hi Debra,

I’ve heard of Grandma Moses as we all have, but I didn’t know her history, so thanks for sharing. She is the perfect example of how doing what you love allows you to live a long, meaningful, happy life. My life has improved tremendously since I took the time to find out what would bring me pleasure and hold my interest. There is something out there for everyone. Enjoyed your post! Take care.

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Debra Eve

Interesting, Cathy. My British husband David and my Australian friend David (below) haven’t heard of her! She’s really part of our culture. But her life is an inspiration for anyone, more so, as you noted, because she pursued her passion for its own sake.

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David Stevens

Hi Debra,
I still have some strings to attach to my bow…..and the time in which to do it, if 76 is any guide. Being Aussie(which is no excuse I guess), I haven’t heard of this Lady however, what a story! Beautifully scripted, I was rivetted to each paragraph, you have done well, Debra.
be good to yourself
David

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Debra Eve

Hey David, my husband David :) is from London, and he’d not heard of her either. She’s one of those American institutions you assume everyone knows about. In fact, I put off writing about her because she’s such a late-blooming cliche. I would love for you to keep an eye out for Australian counterparts and send them to me, because I really want to expand my writing beyond my own experience. Thanks for stopping by!

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Lynette M Burrows

Debra, I love these posts. In this one I particularly loved Grandma Moses’ attitude about life, exemplified when she said: “life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.” How empowered she was, and how inspiring that she kept painting not caring that she had no ‘audience.’ And then her audience found her. Wonderful. Thanks for sharing!

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Debra Eve

Thanks, Lynette. It just astonishing when you realize how much changed during her lifetime. The year before she was born, Charles Darwin published On The Origin Of Species. Just before she died, space travel had commenced. And yet she took it all in stride. I just love her.

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Louise Behiel

thank you so much for this post Debra. I certainly can use the encouragement some days…I need reminding that age is a state of mind and by any standard, i’m still young enough to do it all and have it all.

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Debra Eve

So, so true, Louise. It does get harder as we get older, but as Grandma Moses points out, it’s no reason to give up! Thanks for stopping by.

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Tat

Wow, how inspiring! I had never heard of Grandma Moses before, thank you so much for sharing her story.

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Debra Eve

Hi Tat, she’s an American institution. I hesitated writing about her because she’s a late-blooming cliche over here. So happy to introduce her to folks around the world!

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florence fois

Debra Eve, this is yet another awe inspiring “late bloomer” story. I told my children that I might be considered the Grandma Moses of publishing. Age is not an issue and time is what we make of it :)

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Debra Eve

So true, Florence. At one point in life, I thought art had nothing to do with keeping busy. But at this age, I understand exactly what Grandma Moses meant!

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Pat O'Dea Rosen

Thanks for the fun and inspiring read, Debra.

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Debra Eve

You’re welcome, Pat. So happy you enjoyed it!

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Jennette Marie Powell

I never knew Grandma Moses’ background – wow, she’s one heck of a later bloomer! Thanks for sharing this inspiring story!

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Debra Eve

Thank you for stopping by, Jennette. When you think about how the world changed over the 101 years of her life, it is mind-boggling!

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Lesann

Hi Debra-

I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and wanted to recommend a book to you, in case you’re not already familiar with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He’s written scads about creativity, articulated the theory of “flow” and encouraged methodology for creative expression but in his book titled Creativity, he (and his graduate students) interviewed numerous “successful and creative” individuals.

A great deal more research on the psychology of creativity has been completed since the publication of this seminal work, but it remains some of the most interesting mini-biographies I’ve read. If you’ve not read it, I recommend a skim-through. = )

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Debra Eve

Hi Lesann, read Flow years ago, but not Creativity. Been meaning to get to it in light of my later bloomer writing. Thanks for the reminder, and for stopping by!

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coleen patrick

So encouraging–love it!! Thanks Debra!

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Debra Eve

Thanks, Coleen. So glad you enjoyed it!

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Debbie Morella

How inspirational! I’m going to use her as an example the next time I have to remind my husband that it’s never too late. I keep telling him about the 90 year old who graduated from college and now I can show him this! Thanks for sharing:)

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Debra Eve

Grandma Moses is the original! I just love her. Thanks for stopping by, Debbie!

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farouk

thank you for the interesting and motivating post
glad i passed by today :)

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Debra Eve

Thank you, Farouk! She’s definitely one iconic late bloomer.

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Chris Edgar

I love the quote “I didn’t have time to paint until I was 78.” What occurred to me was how important it is for me to remind myself that I never “lack the time” to do anything — the only constraint on “my time” is the choices I make. The whole idea of “not having time” may have a lot to do with producing “late bloomers” (one of which I consider myself to be) although of course the whole inquiry can go deeper.

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Debra Eve

Thanks so much, Chris. Your commments are always so insightful. I’m struggling with the time issue right now, and you’re absolutely right.

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tam francis

What a wonderful, sweet and inspiring post. I knew about her, but not all those facts. Thank you for this!

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Debra Eve

Hi Tam, thank you! Was just poking around your site — love the vintage design and the concept of your book. So glad to connect!

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Lesley Fletcher (@gypsyles)

What a great article of encouragement for all of us who started later in life once we found the time. My sister always referred to Grandma Moses from when she saw my first piece. I hope she knew how much it meant to me. Thanks for the wonderful reminders of how age does not have to be a burden but rather is a gift.

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Debra Eve

What a great story, Lesley. I just looked at some of your art over at Fine Arts America. Your primitives are lovely, but you’re extremely versatile! So glad this piece spoke to you.

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