(1860 - 1961)
Grandma (Anna Robertson) Moses was active/lived in New York, Virginia. Grandma Moses is known for naive landscape and rural genre naive painting.
Biography from the Archives of askART
The following text is from a review in the Washington Post, April 5, 2001, by Jo Ana Lewis:
Biography from the Archives of askART
Americana Beauty: Newfangled Feminist Perspectives Aside, Grandma Moses Deserves a Second Look
Grandma Moses in the 21st Century," a retrospective at the National
Museum of Women in the Arts, exhibits 87 paintings including "The
Lake," from 1957.
(Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York via Reuters)
1961, when the American farm wife known as Grandma Moses died, she was
101 and world-famous. Born a year before the Civil War, she was in her
seventies when she taught herself to paint. And in her eighties when
she became a superstar.
Today, Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961) is known chiefly through
reproductions of her oil paintings, especially her winter scenes --
quintessential American pictures -- which still appear on dinnerware
(based on her painting Home for Thanksgiving) and millions of Christmas cards.
the hope of deepening what they see as the shallow perception of her
work, Moses' long-time New York dealership and several scholars have
taken up the cause in "Grandma Moses in the 21st Century," a
retrospective at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. In it are 87
paintings, tracing her rise from oblivion in Eagle Bridge, N.Y., to
fame as the best-known woman painter of her time.
"old-timey things," as she put it -- recollections of a happy life as a
child, then wife, on a farm in Upstate New York and, for a time, in
Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. With a special gift for conjuring
atmospheric landscapes and changing seasons, she filled her paintings
with communal scenes of families and farmhands, grown-ups and children
all happily working together on the endless cycle of farm tasks: making
maple syrup or catching the Thanksgiving turkey.
were celebrated on the covers of Time and Life magazines. When Edward
R. Murrow interviewed her on "See It Now," she shoved a piece of paper
in front of him and told him to paint a tree: "Anybody can paint," she
said. Her plain speaking endeared her to a world mostly baffled by
"If I didn't start painting, I would have raised
chickens," she told Murrow. "I would never sit back in a rocking chair,
waiting for someone to help." That interview, which runs in the
museum's orientation gallery, tells you all you need to know about why
the public loved her. Moses' art is most rewarding when seen through
the prism of her remarkable life, which began as one of 10 children of
a farmer who painted landscapes in his spare time. She learned the
womanly arts of cooking, cleaning, sewing, soapmaking, candlemaking and
so forth by age 12, and was sent to work as a hired girl to nearby
relatives. At 27 she married a hired man, Thomas Salmon Moses, and
moved to the Shenandoah Valley, near Staunton, where they worked
as tenant farmers. There she bore 10 children; only five survived infancy.
decades later the Moses family returned to Upstate New York and bought
a dairy farm just a few miles from where she'd grown up on the Vermont
She never painted until after the death of her husband
in 1927, when arthritis forced her to abandon the "worsted pictures"
she'd been embroidering. Soon she was offering her oil paintings on
pressed wood for sale at county fairs, along with her prize-winning
pickles. Her big break came in 1938 when a traveling collector from New
York saw them in the window of a pharmacy in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., and
bought the lot.
He took the paintings to Otto Kallir, a
refugee Viennese art dealer who'd opened the Galerie St. Etienne in
Manhattan. It was Kallir who launched her career in 1940 with a show
titled "What a Farm Woman Painted." Five years later, her fame
skyrocketed when Hallmark purchased the right to reproduce her
paintings on Christmas cards, selling 6 million copies the first year.
That same year, the first book on "Grandma Moses" made the New York
Times bestseller list.
"Until her death in 1961, she was a
very big deal," says Kallir's granddaughter, art historian Jane Kallir,
this show's guest curator and author of one of the catalogue essays.
Today, however, Kallir believes that Moses has been unjustly overlooked
by the art world, museums in particular. And this she attributes, in
part, to the negative aspects of over-commercialization, which Kallir
believes diminished her stature as an artist. She believes Moses is
ripe for reassessment and revival.
I rolled my eyes when I
first read about this show, and its "rethinking and revival" of Grandma
Moses. This is folk art, I thought. What's to rethink? And how could
she be less relevant to our times? As for the five scholarly essays in
the inch-thick catalogue -- especially one subtitled "A Feminist
Reading" -- it seemed like scholarly overkill. How can you call this
artist overlooked when no self-taught painter over 50 can pick up a
brush without being labeled "a Grandma Moses"?
But I looked at
the paintings and realized how rarely, apart from reproductions, this
work is seen today, and what happy encounters the real ones could
provide. Grandma Moses' paintings are time capsules, colorful narrative
landscapes brimming with anecdotal vignettes about the joys of a way of
life now lost. True: Moses counts only the happy hours. But as she once
said, "What's the use of painting a picture if it isn't something
nice?" Her paintings are cumulative, without linear perspective, and
need to be "read" as the eye wanders over the landscape adding up
One wonderful painting called The Thunderstorm,
1948, for instance, is almost cinematic in the way it moves from one
vignette to another. As dark clouds gather, the wind whips the trees
and takes away the hat of the farmer rushing a horse-drawn hay wagon
into the barn, trying to beat the rain. In a distant field, a black
horse bolts in fear, apparently at the sound of thunder. Two men lean
on their rakes, watching the darkening sky. A child's long hair blows
in the wind. Who could fail to enjoy such a picture?
also paintings of sleigh rides, picnics and quilting bees, all laden
with nostalgia for an idealized American way of life that, to this day,
is still defined by such pictures. The same can be said of the highly
trained illustrator Norman Rockwell, who has recently been rethought
and revived. Perhaps that's what inspired Kallir's hopes for Grandma
But Kallir may want too much from this show. Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, another essayist
and chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, set more
realistic parameters: "These are small pictures with tiny people in
them, and we're a big-screen, billboard culture," Hartigan says. "But
Grandma Moses was a visual storyteller, and human beings like to read
stories in pictures. We have narrative minds. So why fight it? People
should just enjoy these paintings for the storytelling pictures they
Biography from the Archives of askART
1998 - 1999
Self-Taught Artists (U.S. Traveling Exhibition), Philadelphia
Museum of Art and other venues Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Moses: Pictures from the Past, Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art Fort
1995 Grandma Moses, Osaka, Tokyo, Yamaguchi, Chiba, Japan
1990 Grandma Moses, Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Funabashi, Yokohama, Japan
1989 Masters of
Naive Art (Japanese Traveling Exhibition), Daimaru Museum and other
venues Kyoto, Japan
1987 Grandma Moses, Isetan Museum and other venues Tokyo, Japan
1984 The World
of Grandma Moses, New York, NY; Baltimore, MD; Nashville, TN; Omaha,
NB; Peoria, IL
1982 - 1983
Grandma Moses: The Artist Behind the Myth, Galerie St. Etienne
and other venues New York, NY
1981 - 1982 The Folk Art Tradition, Galerie St. Etienne New York, NY
1979 Grandma Moses, National Gallery of Art Washington, DC
1974 - 1975 Die
Kunst der Naïven, Haus der Kunst, Munich; Kunsthaus, Zurich Germany;
1968 - 1972 The Grandma Moses Gallery, Bennington Museum Bennington, VT
1969 Art and Life of Grandma Moses, Gallery of Modern Art New York, NY
Triennial of Insitic Art, Nárpolná Galéria Slovenska, Bratislava
1963 - 1964 A
Life's History in 40 Pictures, Austria, France, Germany, Norway,
Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Russia
Lusthof der Naïven, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen Rotterdam, Holland
1964 Der Lusthof der Naïven, Musée National d'Art Moderne Paris, France
Moses: Memorial Exhibition, Galerie St. Etienne New York, NY
1960 My Life's History, IBM Gallery and other venues New York, NY
1955 - 1957 European Traveling Exhibition, various venues
1944 - 1956 U.S. Traveling Exhibitions, various venues
1954 - 1955
American Primitive Paintings, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden,
Norway, UK, Germany
1955 A Tribute to Grandma Moses, IBM Gallery New York, NY
1950 European Traveling Exhibition, various venues
1949 Paintings by Grandma Moses, Phillips Collection Washington, DC
1944 New Paintings by Grandma Moses, Galerie St. Etienne New York, NY
1940 What a Farm Wife Painted, Galerie St. Etienne New York, NY
1939 Contemporary Unknown Painters, Museum of Modern Art New York, NY
Additional exhibition venues are the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth,
Texas; Art Institute of Chicago; Canjohaire Library and Art Gallery;
National Museum of Women in the Arts;
Phillips Collection; Portland Art Museum; National Gallery, Tyler Museum of Art and the University of Rochester Gallery.
Präsentierte Kunstwerke, Ausstellungen und Biografie vonWally Findlay Galleri
Mary Robertson Moses was born in 1860 in Greenwich, New York. Most of
her life was spent in eastern New York State where she was the child of
a Scottish-Irish farm family and led what she later described as a very
happy childhood. Her father encouraged her to draw and paint on unused
newsprint, which he brought home to keep the children busy, and she
used berry juice to brighten her pictures. She never went beyond the
"sixth reader" in school.
Biography from the Archives of askART
At age twelve, she became a hired
girl, learning household arts. She married Thomas Salmon Moses, who was
a hired man; she was a conventional farm wife, living with him on a
large farm near Staunton, Virginia and bearing ten children, but only
five survived. She loved the scenery of the Shenandoah Valley, but
never had time to paint it while she lived there. She and her husband
returned to New York State to a dairy farm in the small village of
Eagle Bridge, where she spent the remainder of her life. Occasionally
she did paintings for holiday gifts, but never took it seriously.
However, her husband gave her work much praise, and after his death,
when she was in her seventies, she was too weak for hard labor, so she
filled her time with stitchery landscape pictures.
had never painted seriously until she was seventy-seven, and had no
formal training whatsoever, the pictures of this farm woman, whose life
since childhood has been one of hard toil, have captured the critics,
enchanted the public and made her, from her own standards at least, a
rich woman. When her doctor ordered her to rest because of her neuritis
and arthritis, she started painting "to keep busy and out of mischief."
She painted in the early part of the day and worked on several
paintings at one time, all from imagination and memory.
best, Grandma Moses was no ordinary primitive. She had in her mind a
shadowless world of dancing images and these she painted on Masonite
with a freshness of vision that seemed eternally young. She became in
her lifetime a national institution, a witty doughty lady who seemed to
recall something about America that America missed. She painted from
memory, but never of sickness, poverty or death. Her paintings numbered
more than 1500; they were shown in more than 150 exhibitions in the
United States and in five one-man shows abroad.
She made the
covers of Life and Time magazines. She was interviewed on radio and
television. Her works were reproduced on collector's plates, fabrics
and millions of greeting cards.
She had eleven grandchildren and
ten great-grandchildren. She felt she had more time for the great
grandchildren than she had had with her children and even her
Written and submitted by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.
Time Magazine, September 6, 1948
Time Magazine, December 22, 1961 and December 28, 1953
Dorothy Thompson in the Ladies' Home Journal (date unknown)
From the internet, AskART.com
"Modern Eyes on a Quaint Reputation" by Scarlet Cheng, Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2001
Born in Greenwich, New York, Grandma Moses is the pivotal figure of the
20th-century American folk art movement, known for her decorative,
naive landscape and genre paintings of rural New England. She had
a precise way of organizing color and pattern.
Biography from the Archives of askART
Her early life
was spent in eastern New York State where she was the child of a
Scottish-Irish farm family and led what she later described as a very
happy childhood. Her father encouraged her to draw and paint on
unused newsprint, which he brought home to keep the children busy, and
she used berry juice to brighten her pictures.
At age twelve,
she became a hired girl, learning household arts. She married
Thomas Salmon Moses and was a conventional farm wife, living with him
on a large farm near Staunton, Virginia and bearing ten children, but
only five survived. She loved the scenery of the Shenandoah
Valley, but never had time to paint it while she lived there.
and her husband returned to New York State to a dairy farm in a small
village of Eagle Bridge, where she spent the remainder of her
life. Occasionally she did paintings for holiday gifts, but never
took it seriously. However, her husband gave her work much
praise, and after his death, when she was in her 70s, she was too weak
for hard labor, so she filled her time with stitchery landscape
Her children thought her work was so appealing they
encouraged her to transfer her talent with color and design to
painting; her first was on canvas from a threshing machine cover.
Her daughter-in-law took her pictures to the women's exchange in the
local drugstore in Hoosick Falls, and Louis Caldor, a private collector
from out of town, was highly impressed. He bought the first group
and visiting Moses, purchased more.
He tried to sell them to
museums and galleries, but had little response. The Phillips Collection
in Washington D.C. was the first museum to acquire her work, which
gradually began to attract much attention. The U.S. Office of
Information began to promote her painting as representative of America,
and in 1939, she was featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern
Art. By the 1940s, she was a household word, a celebrity who was
entertained in the White House. She had a television interview
with Edward R. Murrow when she was over ninety and lived to be 101
As a thrifty housewife, she was appalled at the high
prices her paintings brought and had to have a special manager of her
affairs. But Americans love her work for the nostalgia of happy
times in the past they suggest, and they are willing to pay large sums
for the images she creates.
The Bennington Museum in Bennington,
Vermont is the primary public repository of her paintings and has two
galleries of ongoing exhibitions of her work.
Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists
Selected Solo Exhibitions from the website of Galerie St. Etienne
Biography from Galerie St. Etienne
1940 "What a Farm Wife Painted", Galerie St. Etienne, NY
1944 "New Paintings by Grandma Moses", Galerie St. Etienne, NY
1944-56 Traveling exhibitions: Massachusetts, New
Hampshire, Washington DC, Montana, Virginia, California, Wisconsin,
Minnesota, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Chicago, North Carolina, Kansas,
Maryland, Connecticut, Alabama, Tennessee, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri,
Nebraska, Oklahoma, Vermont, Delaware, Louisiana, Indiana, Florida,
Washington State, NY State, South Carolina
1949 "Paintings by Grandma Moses", Phillips Collection, Washington
1950 "Grandma Moses: 50 Paintings"; European
traveling exhibition: Vienna, Munich, Salzburg, Bern, the Hague, Paris
1955 "A Tribute to Grandma Moses", IBM Gallery, NY
1955-57 European traveling exhibition: Bremen,
Stuttgart, Cologne, Hamburg, London, Oslo, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow
1960 "My Life's History", IBM Gallery, NY; Milwaukee,
Washington DC, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge, Seattle, Laguna Beach, Fort
1962 "Grandma Moses: Memorial Exhibition", Galerie St. Etienne, NY
1963-64 "A Life's History in 40 Pictures"; European
traveling exhibition: Vienna, Paris, Bremen, Hamburg, Hameln, Fulda,
Düsseldorf, Darmstadt, Mannheim, Berlin, Frankfurt, Oslo, Stockholm,
Helsinki, Göteborg, Copenhagen, Moscow
The Grandma Moses Gallery (permanent installation), Bennington Museum, Vermont
Anna Mary Robertson was born on September 7, 1860, in Greenwich, a small community in upstate New York about thirty miles northwest of Bennington, Vermont. Her father, Russell King Robertson, was a farmer and also operated a flax mill. While Anna Mary's five brothers helped their father at the mill and on the farm, she and her four sisters were taught to master a variety of domestic duties. At the tender age of twelve, Anna Mary went to work as a "hired girl" on a neighboring farm, helping a wealthier family with the household chores. She was to pursue this sort of work for the next fifteen years until, at the age of 27, she met a "hired man," Thomas Salmon Moses, whom she married.
Biography from Questroyal Fine Art, LLC
The year was 1887, and Thomas had been told that the Reconstruction-era South was a land of opportunity for Yankees such as himself. Within hours of their wedding, the couple was on a train headed for North Carolina, where Thomas had secured a job managing a horse ranch. However, he and his bride never made it beyond Staunton, Virginia. Here they stopped for the night and were persuaded to take over as tenants on a local farm. Anna Mary immediately fell in love with the beautiful Shenandoah Valley--her chilly New York State home (albeit mountainous) would forever after seem a "swamp" by comparison. Life was not always easy, though. Anna Mary, who believed in pulling her weight, bought a cow with her own savings and supplemented the family income by churning butter. Later, when times were tough, she made and sold potato chips. She gave birth to ten children, of whom only five survived infancy.
Still, the family prospered, eventually earning enough to buy their own farm.
Anna Mary Moses, known by then as "Mother Moses" to many of her neighbors, would happily have spent the rest of her life in Virginia, but Thomas was homesick. In 1905, he persuaded his wife to return North. "I don't think a bit has changed since we left," Anna Mary commented, "the gates are hanging on one hinge since I went away." She and Thomas bought a farm in Eagle Bridge, not far from her birthplace. They named it "Mount Nebo"--prophetically, after the Biblical mountain where Moses disappeared. It was on this farm, in 1927, that Thomas Moses died of a heart attack.
Anna Moses was not one to sit idle. Though all her children were now grown, there was still plenty of work to be done on the farm. Later she would joke, "If I didn't start painting, I would have raised chickens." Or, upon further reflection, "I would rent a room in the city some place and give pancake suppers." In 1932, Moses went to Bennington to take care of her daughter Anna, who was suffering from tuberculosis. It was Anna who showed her mother a picture, embroidered in yarn, and challenged her to duplicate it. So Anna Mary Robertson Moses began stitching what she called "worsted" pictures and giving them away to anyone who'd have them. When Moses complained that arthritis made it hard for her to hold a needle, her sister Celestia suggested she paint instead. In this casual manner, the career of Grandma Moses began.
Soon Moses had more paintings than she could realistically make use of. She sent some to the Cambridge country fair, along with her canned fruits and jams. "I won a prize for my fruit and jam," she sardonically noted, "but no pictures." Here Moses' painting career might have foundered. For much as she loved art, Anna Mary Robertson Moses was above all a sensible woman, and to pursue art for art's sake alone would, by and by, have come to seem a petty indulgence. But then, in 1936 or '37, Caroline Thomas, the wife of the druggist in the neighboring village of Hoosick Falls, invited Moses to contribute to a women's exchange she was organizing.
Moses' paintings sat in the drugstore window, gathering dust next to crafts and other objects created by local homemakers, for several years.
Then, during Easter week of 1938, a New York City collector named Louis Caldor chanced through town. Caldor traveled regularly in connection with his job as an engineer for the New York City water department, and he was in the habit of seeking out native artistic "finds." The paintings in the drugstore window caught his eye; he asked to see more and ended up buying the whole lot. He also got the artist's name and address and set off to meet her in person.
Moses' family clearly thought Caldor was crazy when he told their Grandma he'd make her famous. And indeed, for the next few years, it seemed the family was right. Caldor brought his trove of Moses paintings to New York City and began doggedly making the rounds of museums and galleries. Even those who admired the work lost interest when they heard the artist's age. Turning 88 in 1938, Moses hardly seemed worth the effort and expense involved in mounting an exhibition; her life expectancy was such that most dealers felt they would never reap a profit on their initial investment. Still, Caldor persisted, and in 1939 he had his first limited success: The collector Sidney Janis selected three Moses paintings for inclusion in a private viewing at the Museum of Modern Art. However, this exhibition, which was open only to Museum members, had no immediate impact.
Finally, in 1940, Caldor stopped at the Galerie St. Etienne. Recently founded by Otto Kallir, a Viennese emigré, the Galerie St. Etienne specialized in modern Austrian masters such as Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. But Kallir, like many of the pioneers who championed modernism in the pivotal decades between the two world wars, was also interested in the work of self-taught painters. In Europe, this trend had been established when Picasso "adopted" the painting toll collector Henri Rousseau, and was furthered by the published writings of the Russian-born Expressionist Vasily Kandinsky. Essentially, these artists and their various followers believed that the work of self-taught artists was purer and more original than that of trained painters. In tandem with a concerted effort to renounce academic tradition, the contemporary avant-garde looked to the example of those who, for whatever reason, had been denied formal training.
Anna Mary Robertson Moses made her public debut at the Galerie St. Etienne in October 1940. Otto Kallir had titled the exhibition "What a Farmwife Painted," thinking that the artist's name, completely unknown, did not merit attention. It was only some months later that a journalist, interviewing friends in Eagle Bridge, came upon and then popularized the local nickname "Grandma Moses." The St. Etienne exhibition, though well publicized and well attended, was only a modest success. What really got Moses' career rolling was a Thanksgiving Festival organized by Gimbels Department Store shortly after the St. Etienne show closed. A substantial group of paintings was reassembled at Gimbels, and the artist was invited to come to New York. In her little black hat and lace-collared dress, accompanied by the proprietary Caroline Thomas, Moses (perhaps remembering her experiences at the country fair) delivered a forthright public address on her jams and preserved fruits. The hardboiled New York press corps was delighted, and the legend of Grandma Moses was born.
In defiance of every precedent, Grandma Moses became a superstar. She did not do so willfully or suddenly, but she did so nonetheless. Her talk at Gimbels in 1940 brought a burst of publicity, and Moses was soon something of a local celebrity, but her renown was confined to New York State.
She exhibited at a number of upstate venues and began to be besieged by vacationers seeking artistic souvenirs. For some years, Moses resisted signing a formal contract with Kallir, believing she could manage matters herself. Finally, in 1944, frustrated by the seasonal nature of her tourist-oriented business and by the difficulty collecting payment from some of her customers, she agreed to be represented exclusively by the Galerie St. Etienne and the American British Art Center, whose director, Ala Story, had also become a steady buyer of Moses' work.
The events that established Moses as a national and then international celebrity followed in quick succession. Kallir and Story immediately launched a series of traveling exhibitions that would, over the ensuing two decades, bring Moses' work to more than thirty American states and ten European nations.
In 1946, Kallir edited the first monograph on the artist, Grandma Moses: American Primitive and oversaw the licensing of the first Moses Christmas cards. Both projects proved so successful that the following year the book was reprinted and the greeting card license taken over by Hallmark. In 1949, Moses traveled to Washington to receive a special award from President Truman. The next year, a documentary film on her life, photographed by Erica Anderson, directed by Jerome Hill, and with narration by Archibald MacLeish, was nominated for an Academy Award. Her autobiography, My Life's History, was published in 1952.
The dawning age of mass communications gave the public unprecedented access to Grandma Moses and her work. In addition to traveling exhibitions, books and greeting cards, people could enjoy posters and even mural-sized reproductions, china plates, drapery fabrics and a number of other licensed Moses products. By live-remote broadcast--then a technological marvel--Moses' voice was beamed out from her home in Eagle Bridge to the larger world. A rare use of color television was made to show Moses' paintings when she was interviewed by Edward R. Murrow in 1955. And Lillian Gish portrayed the artist in one of the first televised "docu-dramas."
The rags-to-riches saga of the elderly painter captured the American imagination. acing the harsh realities of the cold-war era, the public took heart in a real-life tale that seemed to prove the old adage, "it's never too late."
The media seemingly never tired of repeating Moses' fairy-tale story. In 1953, she was featured on the cover of Time Magazine; in 1960, Life sent noted photographer Cornell Capa to do a cover story on the artist's 100th birthday. That birthday--declared "Grandma Moses Day" by New York's governor, Nelson Rockefeller--was celebrated almost like a holiday in the nation's press. The fanfare was repeated the following year, when Moses turned 101. Everyone rejoiced at the artist's longevity. Grandma Moses passed away several months after her 101st birthday, on December 13, 1961. Her death was front page news all over America and throughout much of Europe.
Grandma Moses was one of America's best-known folk artists. She spent her life working on farms in upstate New York and rural Virginia, and did not take up painting seriously until she was seventy-five years old. Inspired by childhood memories, Moses' works depict the farm activities and natural phenomena of rural life. Through simplified realism, nostalgic atmospheres, and luminous color, Moses achieved a wide following of art lovers.
Biography from Caldwell Gallery Hudson
Moses' style was described as "American primitive" by her contemporaries in the art world, but she always rejected this label as derogatory. Since her death in 1961, art historians have reexamined Moses' oeuvre from new perspectives, considering alternative terms to describe an artist who did not have conventional training and credentials. However, as Moses' legend lives on it becomes increasingly unnecessary to classify her paintings beyond the mainstream of Modernism. As Peter Schjeldahl wrote in his review of Moses' 2001 exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts: "Moses fell victim to the sterile categories of 'naïve' and 'outsider' and 'self-taught' . . . The truth is that every genuine artist—and, preeminently, every great one, like Pollock—retains childlike and alienated qualities and remains self-taught where it counts. Moses belongs smack inside the canon of twentieth-century art."
Grandma Moses was born as Anna Mary Robertson in Greenwich, Washington County, New York, on September 7, 1860. Her parents, Russell King Robertson and Margaret Shannahan, were farmers and she was the third born of ten children. Russell and Margaret owned a flax mill and, from an early age, Moses worked at farm tasks in order to help keep the household running. She attended school only sporadically. Despite the continual hard work of her childhood Moses recalls it fondly in her autobiography, noting that a favorite treat was when her father brought her paper for drawing.
At age twelve, Moses began earning her living as a "hired girl" in wealthier homes around Greenwich. She worked on various farms for the next fifteen years. In 1887, Moses married Thomas Salmon Moses. The couple moved to a rented farm in Augusta County, Virginia. Over the next decade the Moses' occupied several different farms in the Shenandoah Valley, until, at the turn of the century, they saved enough to buy their own place. Moses had ten children while living in Virginia, only five of which survived past infancy. As the matriarch of her family she became known to her neighbors as "Mother Moses."
In 1905, Moses and her family returned north, buying a farm in Eagle Bridge, New York, not far from her birthplace. As the family became more established and her children began entering adulthood, Moses had more recreational time. She had sewn and embroidered throughout her life; however, as she got older she devoted more time to purely artistic projects and also began dabbling with painting. Her earliest known painting, Fireboard (Private collection; 1918), created when she was fifty-eight, was painted on the board used to seal off the fireplace in summer.
Moses' husband died suddenly in 1927. In 1932, Moses moved to Bennington to take care of her daughter, Anne, who had tuberculosis. While living with Anne, Moses began stitching what she termed "worsted pictures" made from embroidery yarn. The tonal effects Moses achieved with the yarn--color-blocking and subtle layering of different threads side by side to achieve shades--was a great influence in her later painting technique.
Anne died in 1933 and Moses returned to Eagle Bridge. By this time, her arthritis was making it increasingly difficult to hold a needle, so she began to focus on painting. At first, Moses copied illustrated postcards and Currier & Ives prints; however, she gradually began to re-create scenes from her childhood through a mix of recreating figurative elements from found sources and piecing them together with scenes from her imagination. Moses' favorite subjects were landscapes showing happy scenes of rural life, changing seasons and weather, rolling hills, and abundant crops. The people in her paintings are actively engaged in farm tasks, and, although each has separate narratives, they are all part of the established order of farm life. She also painted some history paintings and interior scenes.
In 1936, a friend in the neighboring town of Hoosick Falls invited Moses to display her paintings in the window of a drugstore as part of the local Women's Exchange. These paintings sat in the window for two years until, during Easter week of 1938, a New York City collector named Louis J. Caldor passed through town. Caldor had a hobby of seeking out local art and craft talent in country towns and Moses' paintings caught his eye. Caldor immediately brought all of Moses' displayed works.
For the next few years Caldor took his collection of Moses paintings to museums and galleries in New York City. At first there was little interest in the paintings, particularly when people found out Moses' age; however, Caldor finally had success in 1939 when three of Moses' paintings were selected for a private exhibition of unknown artists at The Museum of Modern Art. In October of the next year, Moses had her first solo exhibition at Otto Kallir's Galerie St. Etienne in New York. The following month her paintings were displayed in Gimbels Department Store. Moses visited the store for the show's opening where, perhaps likening the experience to visiting a county fair, she delivered a speech on the topic of jams and preserved fruits. The New York press was delighted by the down-to-earth Moses who received the attention with good humor, saying: "If they want to make a fuss over me I guess I don't mind." Nevertheless, she admitted that New York City did not interest her greatly and that she was eager to get back to the farm. Unsurprisingly, Moses eventually found managing her artistic career too much to handle and had Kallir at Gallerie St. Etienne and Ala Story at the American British Art Center represent her exclusively.
With professional management, Moses' national and international fame was quickly established through a secession of events. In 1946, Kallir edited the first monograph on the artist, Grandma Moses, American Primitive. (Later versions were simply called Grandma Moses after the artist took offence to the term "primitive.") In 1949, Moses traveled to Washington D.C. where President Truman bestowed on her the Women's National Press Club Award. Moses' work had its first European exposure in 1950 with an exhibition of fifty works touring Vienna, Munich, Salzburg, Berne, The Hague, and Paris. The same year, a documentary film on the artist was nominated for an Academy Award and two years later Lillian Gish portrayed her in a live television movie. In 1955, Edward R. Murrow interviewed Grandma Moses on CBS's "See It Now". While Moses was increasingly in the spotlight, she rarely left her farm in upstate New York and made few concessions to her new affluence. Her biggest luxury was building a ranch-style home across the street when the stairs in her old home became too difficult to manage.
In 1952, Moses' published her autobiography, My Life's History. This book is the most important source of primary information about the artist, specifically providing insights into her tastes, composition ideas, work ethic, and even her views on feminism (Moses wrote: "I think women should vote, they have to make a living just the same as the men do, so why should they not have a say-so?" ) Most significantly, My Life's History shows Moses' ongoing interest in painting and creativity, helping to explain her rapid transformation from farm wife to artist. While Moses' initial fame may have been a novelty to the New York press, My Life's History demonstrates that Moses was a disciplined artist all her life, albeit one whose circumstances rarely allowed her to paint.
On Moses' 100th birthday in 1960, the New York Governor, Nelson Rockefeller, proclaimed the day as "Grandma Moses Day" to honor the artistically talented woman. One year later, Grandma Moses died on December 13, 1961. She was buried in the Maple Grove Cemetery in Hoosick Falls, New York.
Grandma Moses was a self-taught, American female folk artist who achieved iconic status with her work. She spent 18 years of her life as a farm wife, raising 5 children before beginning her career as an artist. After her husband's death in 1927, Moses began to paint full-time, exhibiting canvases of country scenes with activities and fairs. The paintings were typically bright colored, well-organized compositions depicting a simple and nostalgic way of life. Later, in the 1940s, her work showed more rolling hills with small figures engaged in activity.
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Moses' career was publicly launched in 1939 after an exhibit in the local drugstore window, which was brought to the attention of the director of Galerie St. Etienne, NYC. Moses began to show and sell work through the director and made over 1,000 paintings in all. She would work in batches as to complete up to five paintings in a week. She also did work in tile and yarn after her eyesight began to deteriorate.
Grandma Moses died at the age of 101.
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