Grandma Moses Biography – American Folk Artist, Painter, Folk Art, American Art, Legacy

Grandma Moses Essay
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Grandma Moses. National Portrait Gallery, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Grandma Moses Biography and Legacy

Not many have heard of Grandma Moses, I am sure. Not many are aware of the fact that she was a well-known American folk artist. Not many know about the inspiring life that she led.

Now, some of you might wonder, how come you have never heard of her before? Was she really a famous artist? How come she was never on your radar? Well, she was certainly not a famous household name across the world like say Picasso or Matisse or Van Gogh or Da Vinci. She did not necessarily revolutionize art in a way these artists have often been credited to have done. But, people in the art world, or those who are even remotely interested in art, have probably heard of her, I believe.

According to me, Grandma Moses definitely deserves equal fame across the world as the great artists mentioned above. She deserves to be a household name. In fact, I believe she deserves all the acclaim in the world and much more, for her life will no doubt serve as an inspiration to every single person out there, regardless of whether one is an artist or not.

So who exactly was Grandma Moses, and why do I admire her so much? Well, I will tell you. Allow me to blabber on as usual on a subject I may not necessarily know much about.

Grandma Moses, whose actual name was Anna Mary Robertson, was an American folk artist born on 7th September 1860 in Greenwich, New York. The fact that she was an artist is not the interesting part. The interesting part is the fact that she only began painting properly at the age of 78. And in spite of such a late start, she would go on to have a highly successful career as an artist, with her works being displayed in exhibitions and museums across the world.

But first, let us take a look at her early life, before fame as an artist hit her in her 80s.

Grandma Moses was the third of ten children born to Margaret Shanahan Robertson and Russell King Robertson, a farmer who also ran a flax mill. For a brief stint, she attended a small one-room school nearby. This school was eventually moved to the grounds of the Bennington Museum in Vermont and became a part of it. The museum now holds the largest public collection of her works in the US.

It was at school that Grandma Moses first began painting during her art lessons. She would paint using lemon and grape juice to make the colors for her landscapes. She also used grass, slack lime, sawdust, flour paste, and ground ocher to create the colors she wanted.

Unfortunately, her art lessons at school were short-lived. In 1872, aged 12, she left home to go and work on the farm of a wealthy neighboring family. For the next 15 years of her life, she did farm and household chores for wealthy families, where she cooked, cleaned, and sew as well. She mostly lived with these families as a live-in housekeeper.

It was sometime during this 15-year period that an employer noticed her interest in the prints made by Currier and Ives, a well-known American printmaking firm. The employer bought and gifted her some drawing materials such as wax crayons, chalk, etc.

Around the age of 27, she got married to a man named Thomas Salmon Moses, who worked as a hired man on the same farm as her. For the next 20 years or so, the couple lived in Staunton, Virginia, living and working on multiple local farms. They would go on to have 10 children together, out of which only 5 would survive infancy.

In 1901, Grandma Moses and her husband purchased their first home and farm together in Virginia. Grandma Moses tried to showcase her creative side even back then by doing a variety of things. She painted the fireboard (or chimney board) of her house with the help of house paint. She created quilted objects, a form of hobby art that involves the reusing of discarded objects. She even made embroidered pictures of yarn for friends and relatives.

In 1905, she and her husband moved to a farm in Eagle Bridge, New York. In 1927, when she was 67 years old, her husband passed away due to a heart attack. She would never marry again.

After her husband’s death, her son began helping her to run the farm. Around 9 years later, at the age of 76, she retired from farm life and moved in with her daughter.

Post-retirement, Grandma Moses spent her time doing embroidery. But she was soon forced to give up her hobby after she developed arthritis. Arthritis made embroidery difficult and painful. It was around this time that her sister suggested she take up painting instead.

Grandma Moses agreed. Painting had been a passion of hers that she had never gotten a chance to pursue due to her hectic and difficult farm life. This simple suggestion from her sister would completely change the rest of her life in a way, I am sure, she could never have imagined. This harmless suggestion would result in one of the most inspiring lives of any artist in history.

At the old age of 78, when most people give up on their lives, or when their lives are naturally coming to an end, Grandma Moses got a whole new lease on life, leading her into just the second phase of her long life when most are at their last.

Grandma Moses began painting scenes of rural life from the earlier days. She described these paintings as old-timey New England landscapes. These early paintings were devoid of any features or signs of modern life, such as telephone poles, tractors, motor vehicles, etc.

Her early style was simple and realistic and her works were mostly copies of already existing images or simple, plain compositions that betrayed a lack of knowledge of basic perspective.

Grandma Moses described her process in a simple and straightforward manner. She said she would get inspiration and start painting, and then she would forget everything else except how things used to be back in the old days and how to paint it in a way that people would know how they used to live in those days.

In 1938, around two years after she began painting in earnest, an art collector named Louis J. Caldor saw some paintings made by Grandma Moses in the window of a drug store in Hoosick Falls. He liked the paintings so much that not only did he buy all the paintings that the store had of hers but also located her residence and went and bought around 10 other paintings from her for $3 or $5.

The following year, 3 of her paintings were included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibition was called Contemporary Unknown American Painters.

In October 1940, her first solo exhibition, under the name Mrs. Moses, was held in New York at Austrian-American art historian and gallerist Otto Kallir’s art gallery, Galerie St. Etienne. But the press took it upon itself to provide her with a nickname by which history would come to remember her, Grandma Moses.

In November of the same year, her second solo exhibition was held at Gimbel’s Department Store, where 50 of her paintings were displayed. And in December, her third solo exhibition was held at the Whyte Gallery in Washington D.C.

As her career advanced, she began creating more complex, panoramic compositions of rural life. And as her fame grew in the art world, the price of her paintings increased as well. Her works that once sold for just $3 to $5 began to be sold for $7,000 to $10,000, or more.

Otto Kallir became a champion of her work. He would even go on to establish Grandma Moses Properties, Inc for her. By the mid-1940s, she was represented by Kallir’s gallery and the American British Art Center. These representations helped to increase the value of her work and increased her sales.

But greater things were in store for Grandma Moses. Her paintings began to be reproduced on greeting cards, ceramics, fabrics, tiles, etc. They were even used to market products like cigarettes, coffee, cameras, lipsticks, etc.

Her paintings were used to publicize American holidays and events such as the 4th of July, mother’s day, thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. This was mainly because her paintings emanated a sense of light-hearted optimism, portraying the world as a beautiful and good place, rather than showing the chaos and insecurity of the times. Her paintings instilled in people a very warm and positive feeling.

All this would greatly help her work reach a wider audience around the world. As the New York Times put it: 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 1948, Grandma Moses, aged 88, was named the Young Woman of the Year by the woman’s magazine Mademoiselle. The following year, she was presented the Women’s National Press Club Award for outstanding accomplishment in art by President Harry S. Truman. She was also awarded an honorary degree from Russell Sage College the same year.

In 1950, a documentary was made about her extraordinary life, which was even nominated for an Academy Award. Two years later, she published her autobiography My Life’s History.

Grandma Moses’ story became an inspiration for widows, retirees, housewives, and anyone who thought it was too late to follow one’s passion. She proved them all wrong. She showed them that it was never too late.

One of her paintings, Fourth of July (1951), was gifted to the White House in 1952 by Kallir. The painting now appears on a US postage stamp issued in her honor in 1969.

During the 1950s, her exhibitions broke all attendance records around the world, bringing her to the height of her fame as an artist.

Over the course of her 20-year career, she would remain highly prolific, creating over 1,500 works. Her works were widely exhibited across the US and Europe.

Her 100th birthday was declared Grandma Moses Day by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. She was also featured on the cover of LIFE magazine.

On 13th December 1961, Grandma Moses, aged 101, died in Hoosick Falls, New York. She was interred at the Maple Grove Cemetery.

President John F. Kennedy publicly mourned her death with the following words: The death of Grandma Moses removed a beloved figure from American life. The directness and vividness of her paintings restored a primitive freshness to our perception of the American scene. Both her work and her life helped our nation renew its pioneer heritage and recall its roots in the countryside and on the frontier. All Americans mourn her loss.

After her death, her paintings were exhibited in large traveling exhibitions in the US and abroad.

Today, her works are valued in the thousands and millions. One of her paintings called The Old Checkered House, 1862 (made in 1942) that was sold for less than $10 in the 1940s was given an insurance value of $60,000 when it was appraised at the 2004 Memphis Antiques Roadshow.

Another of her paintings titled Sugaring Off was sold for $1.2 million in 2006, making it her highest-selling work to date.

But in spite of her great achievements and success as an artist, I think we can all admit that her true achievement, her true success, was her life itself. The life that inspired countless women and men across the world, gave them hope, and taught them that it is never too late to learn and succeed. Her true achievement and success must be measured by the impact of her life on people rather than by her impact on the art world, although, I admit, both are perfectly intertwined with each other, making it difficult for one to separate them.

Grandma Moses is the definition of a person who refused to admit it was too late to learn and succeed at something, anything. Her life is an inspiration to not just artists but to anyone in any given field.

I personally feel that her life screams aloud the following message: Remember, it is never too late!

We must all strive to be like Grandma Moses.