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Happy Birthday Grandma Moses

Anna Mary Robertson, “Grandma” Moses
Born: September 7, 1860
Died: December 13, 1961 (For those of you who are good at math, Mrs. Moses lived for 101 years.)

I’ve never been a big fan of folk art. I’ve never had figurines of chickens or cows in my kitchen, and I can’t remember ever owning anything made of gingham. Both sets of my grandparents grew up in small rural Texas towns, but my parents, like so many others, moved to the “big city” as quickly as they could. Thus, I’m basically a city girl.

But I’m not dumb when it comes to Americana, and I think I have a healthy respect for all it represents. However, until I did my prep for this story, I knew very little about Grandma Moses. I knew she was an artist who painted country scenes, but that was about it.

Oh my! What a woman! Now, Grandma Moses is right up there with Frida Kahlo, Mother Teresa, and Wonder Woman in my book. Read on and see if you agree.

Grandma Moses Goes to the Big City, 1946, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum © Grandma Moses Properties

Anna Mary Robertson Moses was born in rural New York in 1860, one year prior to the start of the American Civil War. She was the third of ten children. As a teen, she worked cleaning the houses of wealthy local farmers and was intrigued by their Currier and Ives prints that adorned the walls of her employers. After marrying, she moved to Virginia and gave birth to 10 children, but only five of them survived past infancy. Later, the family moved back to New York. Anna had a knack for sewing and would often gift her friends embroidered pictures. But, as she aged, at 76, arthritis in her hands made it difficult to sew. Her sister suggested that she take up painting, and thus, she began a career as an artist.

Grandma Moses, Out for Christmas Trees, 1946, oil on pressed wood, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Grandma Moses Properties Co., New York

In 1938, at age 78 (unbelievable), Anna started painting landscapes of rural New England life. She never took an art class and never attended college. She just painted what she knew. She preferred scenes of bygone eras, like when there were no telephone poles or cars. After all, the woman had survived the Civil War, and the Industrial Revolution, then started a new career at the end of The Great Depression. In the beginning, Anna didn’t have access or the means to buy high-quality art materials. She didn’t have small brushes, so she used matchsticks and pins to paint details like eyes and mouths. She made what she had work.

Christmas at Home by Grandma Moses

Her family and neighbors loved her paintings so she started displaying them at a local drugstore. It was there that an art collector spotted her work, and this led to national and international acclaim. Eventually, in 1939, she had an exhibit at MOMA.

When Anna first started exhibiting her work, everyone referred to her as Mrs. Moses. In 1940, a New York art critic noted that all of her neighbors called her “Grandma” Moses and the name stuck. She had nine grandchildren and more than thirty great-grandchildren.

Cover of Time Magazine, December 28, 1953

In 1948, at age 88, Anna was named Mademoiselle magazine’s “Young Woman of the Year.” Yearly, the magazine honored ten outstanding American young women, ard she won the honor for her “flourishing young career and the youth of her spirit.”

July Fourth by Grandma Moses (1951). Currently is displayed in the White House.

In the beginning, Anna’s paintings sold for as little as $3. She kept painting until her death at age 101, and during her almost three-decade career as a painter, she produced over 1500 works. In 2006, her 1943 painting, Sugaring Off, sold for $1.36 million. Art collector Otto Kallir gifted her painting, July Fourth (painted in 1951, at age 91), to the White House, where it hangs today. In 1969, it appeared on a U.S. commemorative stamp honoring Anna’s work.

Christmas Homecoming (Norman Rockwell Museum) appeared on the cover of the December 25, 1948 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

During her lifetime, she became friends with artist Norman Rockwell. Rockwell even added Anna to his painting, Christmas Homecoming, which appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on December 25, 1948. Grandma Moses is to the left of the hugging couple.

Because Anna lived in New York, she often painted winter scenes. She sprinkled glitter over the snow for a special, sparkly touch. The art critics called this amateurish since it was a non-traditional medium, but Anna didn’t let this bother her. She painted what she wanted, the way she wanted to do it.

Anna’s work was widely reproduced. Hallmark licensed her paintings, and in 1947 alone, over 16 million greeting cards were sold with Grandma Moses’ reproductions. Eventually, fabrics and even a record called “The Grandma Moses Suite” were available to her fans.

The 1969 U.S. postage stamp honoring Grandma Moses. It re-creates her painting Fourth of July, which the White House owns. Public domain image

Wowza!

We’ve all heard rags-to-riches stories like this, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of one that began so late in life. In comparison to Grandma Moses, even Colonel Sanders was a spring chicken at age 62 when he started his poultry empire.

Now you see why Anna Mary Robertson Moses is my hero. Although commendable, it’s not so much her art or her talent that impresses me, but rather her tenacity and courage to start something she had never tried at age 78. She didn’t allow arthritis to squelch her creativity. She found an even better way to express herself. She didn’t let the cold winter conditions in New York deter her. She flaunted them. She didn’t let the critics’ reviews extinguish her excitement. She kept sprinkling glitter on the paintings because of the cool way it made them sparkle in the light. And, all those kids and grandkids! Geez! The woman painted at her kitchen table as her family did their “things” around her. She was a “no excuses” kind of lady. She never lost her dream, her energy, her purpose. 

Age 78! Anna puts me to shame and inspires me to do more. None of us should ever feel like we are too old, too young, too poor, or too underrecognized to reach for something we really want to do. Ever!

Anna, you are my creative muse, my Polyhymia. Happy Birthday, great lady!

 

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This work by Anel “Pookie” Ryan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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