She was an octogenarian, an artist, a naturalist, a visionary, a farm wife, and a mother of ten children. She has been immortalized on china plates, greeting cards, and even a special shade of lipstick. She came into the world as Anna Mary Robertson on September 7, 1860, in Greenwich, New York. Raised by hard-working parents with four sisters and five brothers. Her father, Russell King Roberston, was a farmer who also ran a flax mill.
She attended a one-room schoolhouse and it’s possible that her artistic tendencies began to develop there. The schoolhouse is now the Bennington Museum in Vermont and houses the largest collection of her works in the country.
But being a farm girl, she had little time for art. The chores around the home and farm were numerous. Around the age of 12, when her mother, Margaret Shanahan Robertson felt the work was caught up, she hired Anna Mary out as a house girl to bring in much-needed extra cash.
When Anna Mary grew up, she married a man named Thomas Salmon Moses and after working for others on farms in the area, they settled in Eagle Bridge, New York. Families needed as much help as possible on their farms, and large families were the norm, Grandma Moses was no exception, she gave birth to ten children, although only five survived infancy.
Grandma Moses painted life as she saw it and lived it. She put herself into her paintings, and with a clear, unprejudiced eye brought her world into clear focus for all of us, for all of time.
Her work had its critics. “Not sophisticated enough,” they said. They couldn’t accept the “primitive” and “untrained” way she painted. But this style is exactly what endeared her to the public. It’s why she became so popular it a wide audience outside the traditional art world. Her paintings have been reproduced on Hallmark greeting cards which have sold millions.
As a child, her father encouraged her art, little did he know how that encouragement would manifest itself so many years later. She must have had artistic leanings as a child because she drew on whatever she could get her hands on, even old newspapers. For colors, she ventured out into the fields and woods around her house to take in nature’s beauty and to find natural ingredients like flowers and berries to brighten her work. She also used ground ochre, grass, flour paste, slack lime, and sawdust. She may have been one of the first naturalists on the scene.
“I look out the window sometimes to seek the color of the shadows and the different greens in the trees, but when I get ready to paint I just close my eyes and imagine a scene.” –Grandma Moses
When she finally had time from her busy life as a farm wife and mother to paint, she was 78 years old. By that time she had stored up many memories that she would express on canvas. Her paintings were formed from these memories. She also made use of magazines and newspapers for inspiration. She was heavily influenced by Currier and Ives prints of the day. Her paintings numbered in the thousands, all painted in the last two decades of her life.
Her paintings have been seen all over the world and many have fetched hefty prices. In the beginning, they sold for $3-$5 each. In her later years, some of her works sold for $8,000 to $10,000, and her work continues to grow in value to this day.
She painted a time that is long gone for most of us; a simpler more basic time. Her work is called primitive or naive art because she was self-taught, never having taken a formal lesson. She began painting with what she had on hand, many times painting on wood fireboard.
Self-taught artists like Grandma Moses caught the eye of the American public. Her work was a mix of much-loved American virtues and originality. Looking at her paintings we are reassured of the beauty of nature and the importance of the simple life. It all adds up to Moses’ popular appeal which is still in evidence today.
The New York Times said of her: “The simple realism, nostalgic atmosphere and luminous color with which Grandma Moses portrayed simple farm life and rural countryside won her a wide following. She was able to capture the excitement of winter’s first snow, Thanksgiving preparations, and the new, young green of oncoming spring… In person, Grandma Moses charmed wherever she went. A tiny, lively woman with mischievous gray eyes and a quick wit, she could be sharp-tongued with a sycophant and stern with an errant grandchild.”
A Little Bit of History
One day, before she was known to the world, she put some of her paintings in a local store. Soon after, amateur art collector Louis Calder happened to be passing through town and saw her work in the window of the store. The year was 1938. He was so impressed with her primitive style and vibrant colors that he bought all the paintings the store had. He then spoke with her and told her how impressed he was with her work. He then set her up in her first showing in a New York City art gallery. Owned by Otto Kallir, the Galerie St. Etienne, was the first to show her art to the world. The rest is history.
Grandma Moses Paintings
In 1943, she was at the height of her painting career. Her style had become very mature, and she was obviously a master of her medium, rendering the details of her paintings with more clarity and depicting more complex compositions.
Sugaring Off is a painting depicting the production of maple sugar. It was a huge part of life in Grandma Moses’s time. Her picture shows how hard the work was, the weather was cold, but the villagers had a good time while engaged in the activity. They were hard-working yet fun-loving people who came together as a community and got the necessary work of country life done.
The colors in Sugaring Off are vibrant. The people are dressed in warm winter wear and are busily going about the task of gathering sap to make maple syrup. What did they do with the syrup? Once the sap is collected in buckets it’s then heated over a fire and poured up in jars.
Her paintings are full of nature and activity, and we see this in abundance in Sugaring Off. Even though her style is primitive, this picture shows depth by the way the trees are painted in the foreground. The activity of the people in the picture creates a down-home feeling as the community gathers to make the magic that is maple syrup. I can imagine the sweet aroma of boiling maple syrup and how the children gathered around for the first taste of the heavenly stuff. What wasn’t sold to neighboring farms and friends was quickly used up by the folks in Moses’ village.
Her portrayal of Sugaring Off has attracted so much attention through the years that in 2006 it sold at auction for $1.2 million. I wonder what Grandma Moses would have to say about that. She was showing the world the beauty and simplicity of farm life in her day just as she saw it, just as it was. I don’t think the money was an issue for her. But I think she would be proud to know of its widespread popularity all the same.
“I like to paint something that leads me on and on into the unknown, something that I want to see away on beyond.” –Grandma Moses
There’s nothing pretentious about her work, and that’s one of the reasons for its popularity and its ability to speak to us even today. We get a peek into the life and times of one very uncomplicated yet visionary woman who lived and painted rural life exactly as she saw it. Her basic mindset and beliefs come through in her pictures and speak to us all. Sometimes the old-fashioned ways are the best ways. If we could go back to her days, we would agree.
“I paint from the top down. From the sky, then the mountains, then the hills, then the houses, then the cattle, and then the people.” –Grandma Moses
Moses took as her subject a real place, here a once famous landmark. She did not, however, simply and truthfully depict it. She instead relied heavily on her imagination and populated the scene according to a long-acquired memory bank of images, not all necessarily from the same place or time.
The Old Checkered House painting is one of Grandma Moses’ best-loved works. Painting places of local repute was one of her passions. It’s one that she painted partially from memory. The house was a local landmark and one of the old homes that she felt was fast disappearing. Located in Cambridge, New York, it was used in 1777 as a headquarters for British troops in the Battle of Bennington. The house also served as a hospital after the battle.
In 1824 the home was owned by the Long family and it is said that they used it as an inn and one of their guests was the famed General Lafayette of the Revolutionary War. Knowing all this, it was no wonder Grandma Moses chose to recreate this famous landmark.
The painting became so popular that she created two dozen versions of it. It’s been depicted on Atlas China collector plates and is also the inspiration for a shade of lipstick called “Primitive Red” by the Richard Hudnut company. Memphis 2004 Antiques Roadshow appraised the painting.
Do you want to experience Grandma Moses’ artwork? There are many ways to experience her art today, it has been recreated on plates, napkins, wallpaper, and greeting cards to name a few. Her art was primitive and naive, but it had a real, untouched, basic quality to it. There was nothing fictitious, nothing made about her art. She painted from the heart. She was a farm woman of basic means living the simple life.
“Even now / I am not old. / I never think of it, and yet / I am a grandmother to eleven grandchildren.” –Grandma Moses
Grandma Moses’ Troy lies across the Hudson River from Albany, New York, and was the largest city near Grandma Moses’ home in Eagle Bridge. Surviving documents suggest that, for a brief period before she married, the future artist did factory work in Troy.
The burning of the city of Troy happened a few years before Grandma Moses was born. But since it was so massive and widespread, it was a prominent subject in the local lore of her day. She painted the picture using a newspaper clipping of the event. The blazing inferno she painted does a good job of capturing our attention, and we also get a good view of the town of Troy in the background.
The Burning of Troy differs from her usual subject, which seems to suggest just how important the event was. The fact that she chose to paint this picture many years after the incident shows that she was aware of the events of her time and the need to make them known to the public. Whether for the sake of history or simply for the love of painting, this picture stands out and is one of my favorites.
This picture hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a gift from the Kallir family in memory of gallery owner Otto Kallir. In this picture, she depicts herself about to leave on her very first trip to New York City to see her work on view at Galerie St. Etienne. She was 80 years old at the time.
I think the world loved the art Grandma Moses created for many reasons. For its primitive freshness, its vibrant colors, its depiction of a time in history many of us hold dear, and most certainly for the fact that a 78-year-old woman did not let her age stop her from fulfilling her dream of being an artist. In that way, she embodies the American spirit that’s still alive and well today. In her own words:
“I have written my life in small sketches, a little today, a little yesterday…I look back on my life as a good day’s work. It was done and I feel satisfied with it. I made the best out of what life offered.”