Grandma Moses: “Life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.”

Grandma Moses: “Life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.”

(September 7 marks the 156th anniversary of Grandma Moses’s birth.
I’m republishing this to celebrate!)

Anna Mary Robertson was born before Lincoln took office. She died the year of JFK’s inauguration.

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. No one noticed the paintings.

But she persevered 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. You might know her as Grandma Moses.

Grandma Moses: "Life is what we make it, always has been, always will be."
Grandma Moses, Rainbow (1961)

A Life From Lincoln to Kennedy

Anna Mary Robertson (1860-1961), also known as Grandma Moses, lived from Civil War’s onset to the Civil Rights Movement.

Though born on a farm in Greenwich, New York, her parents filled her early years with creative projects. They bought large sheets of blank newsprint for a penny and gave them to Mary and her siblings to draw on. “It lasted longer than candy,” she recalled. But her real artistic impulses would wait another 65 years.

She took her first job at age 12, cooking and cleaning for rich neighbors. She spent the next fifteen years working for wealthy families, until she caught the eye of Thomas Moses, a hired hand at her farm. They wed and became tenant farmers in Virginia.

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

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. She picked up embroidery to keep busy until rheumatism made it too hard to hold a needle. At age 78, she started painting instead.

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

As first Grandma Moses copied prints and old post cards. You can see the Currier & Ives influence in her early works. But soon she created 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 visited 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” with great success.

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 cost of organizing a show. She would paint for twenty-one more years.

Grandma Moses: "Life is what we make it, always has been, always will be."
Grandma Moses, Over The River (1945)

“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” made Grandma Moses 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 See It Live! with Edward Murrow. She couldn’t have imagined television as a child. Yet onscreen, 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.”

Grandma Moses: "Life is what we make it, always has been, always will be."New York Governor Rockefeller proclaimed her 100th and 101st birthdays “Grandma Moses Days.” She died a few months after her 101st. Her doctor said, “She just wore out.”

As a child, I remember 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 that made her famous and well-loved, but the era and the emotions she evoked.

Even if she hadn’t attained fame, Grandma Moses would have kept painting.

She allowed her arthritic “disability” to shape how she held a brush and expressed her memories. Her two-decade 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. Her needlepoint pieces appear in the first frames.
  • And don’t miss this comic strip on being an artist! It’s beautiful.

47 Responses

  1. Patricia @ Pollywog Creek
    | Reply

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

    • 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!

  2. Sandra Heska King
    | Reply

    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.

    • 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!

  3. Lindsay
    | Reply

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

    • 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!

  4. Dave Doolin
    | Reply

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

    • 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.

  5. Daniela
    | Reply

    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.

    • 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.

  6. Daphne Gray-Grant
    | Reply

    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.

    • 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.

  7. Cathy | Treatment Talk
    | Reply

    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.

    • 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.

  8. David Stevens
    | Reply

    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

    • 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!

  9. Lynette M Burrows
    | Reply

    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!

    • 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.

  10. Louise Behiel
    | Reply

    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.

    • 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.

  11. Tat
    | Reply

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

    • 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!

  12. florence fois
    | Reply

    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 🙂

    • 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!

  13. Pat O'Dea Rosen
    | Reply

    Thanks for the fun and inspiring read, Debra.

    • Debra Eve
      |

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

  14. Jennette Marie Powell
    | Reply

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

    • 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!

  15. Lesann
    | Reply

    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. = )

    • 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!

  16. coleen patrick
    | Reply

    So encouraging–love it!! Thanks Debra!

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Coleen. So glad you enjoyed it!

  17. Debbie Morella
    | Reply

    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:)

    • Debra Eve
      |

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

  18. farouk
    | Reply

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

    • Debra Eve
      |

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

  19. Chris Edgar
    | Reply

    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.

    • 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.

  20. tam francis
    | Reply

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

    • 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!

  21. Lesley Fletcher (@gypsyles)
    | Reply

    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.

    • 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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  24. Krithika Rangarajan
    | Reply

    Hey Debra

    Do you teach storytelling classes? Because I would love to learn the art of telling a story with as much humility, honesty and PASSION as you.

    I ENJOY your late bloomer tales…thank you so much for teaching us all that creativity neither has a start date nor an end date. It just is 😀

    Thank you so much #HUGS
    Kitto

  25. david
    | Reply

    I have three prints I would like to find the value of them. Can you advise me on where to go? My email is [removed]@gmail.com. Thank you.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Sorry David, that’s outside my expertise. Perhaps you can check with a local gallery or museum?

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