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Grandma Moses: An American Icon

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History in Our Backyard: Grandma Moses

Grandma Moses: One of Our Most Celebrated Painters

Grandma Moses. Photo Courtesy Hancock Elementary SchoolA self-taught painter, Grandma Moses, whose real name was Anna Mary Robertson, was born as she described back in the green meadows and wild woods on a farm in Washington County. The eldest daughter, she was born September 7, 1860 and grew up in a family of ten children in Greenwich.

For a woman who would become one of the most famous primitive painters in America, Anna Mary said that if she didn’t paint that she’d raise chickens. Growing up on a farm meant that she learned how to make candles and soap; her mother taught her how to knit stockings and tend to the farm animals.

“When I was quite small my father would get me and my brothers white paper by the sheet, it was used for newspapers. He liked to see us draw pictures, it was a penny a sheet and it lasted longer than candy,” she wrote in her book Grandma Moses: My Life History. “My oldest brother loved to draw steam engines, that was a hobby with him, the next brother went in for animals, but as for myself I had to have pictures and the gayer the better.”

She’d color the pictures with grape juice or berries, anything that was red and pretty, she said in her way of thinking. “Once I was given some carpenter’s red and blue chalk,” she wrote. “Then I was rich, children did not have so much in those days, we appreciated what we did get.”

In her memoirs, Grandma Moses recalled the day when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and how the pillars on the stores were wrapped in black bunting. Later on in life, she would paint a picture in 1957 of the village in mourning.

At the age of 12, she went to work as a hired hand for Mr. and Mrs. Whiteside. Her older brothers had already gone out to work. The Whiteside’s were a well-to-do family. There were pictures on the walls of every room. Some were of Currier and Ives that she studied during her spare time. When the Whiteside’s discovered her interest in drawing, Mr. Whiteside brought her a box of chalk and wax crayons. She copied the pictures and painted them her way. Grandma Moses worked for the Whiteside’s for four years.

Quilting Bee (Grandma Moses, 1950)She continued doing house work for a living until she met Thomas Salmon Moses in 1887. They got married, traveled south to Virginia, where they lived on a farm and raised five children. They were profitable farmers. An industrious creative-minded thinker, Grandma Moses made homemade butter and sold to the local general store. Her aspirations changed from butter to making potato chips, which were a new product at that time.

“By the measurements for success applied to their neighbors Tom and Anna Moses ‘had made it good’ in Virginia,” wrote William H. Armstrong in Barefoot in the Grass: The Story of Grandma Moses. “They had left Eagle Bridge as a hired couple; but now they returned as owners of the Van Rensselaer farm, one of the best farms in Hoosick Valley.”

While the children attended school, Grandma Moses painted Christmas cards and sent them by mail to friends in Virginia and relatives in Cambridge. She wallpapered the parlor and ran short of paper for the fire board. Her first large picture, Grandma Moses painted butternut trees with a scene of a lake. She painted it a bright yellow as if the viewer were looking off into the sunlight. The painting now hangs in the Bennington Museum.

Her husband died in 1927. In 1930, she celebrated her 70th birthday. Her younger sister, Celestia, saw how difficult she managed doing fancy work, as she called it, with a needle and thread because of her arthritis. She suggested that she try painting instead.

“I had always liked to paint,” she recalled years later. “But only little pictures for Christmas gifts and things like that. I really started in my old age, one might say, and painted for pleasure, to keep busy and to pass the time away, but I thought of it no more than doing fancy work.”

Sugaring Off  (Grandma Moses, 1943)When she’d acquired a few paintings on hand, Grandma Moses brought them down to the old Thomas’ drug store in Hoosick Falls and put them on exhibition. Besides entering her canned fruits and raspberry jam, she put a few of her paintings on display at the Cambridge Fair. She won a prize for her fruit and jam, but no pictures.

It wasn’t until a Mr. Louis J. Caldor of New York City, an engineer and art collector, was passing through the town of Hoosick Falls, that he saw and purchased her paintings.

“He wanted me to paint more, he came back several times, he bought the pictures and paid for them,” she wrote. In October 1940, her paintings found their way into the Museum of Modern Art exhibition. “When my exhibition opened large numbers of elderly people came having heard my story.”

In 1949, President Harry S. Truman presented her with the Women’s National Press Club award for ‘Outstanding Accomplishment in Art.” She was 88 years old and would go on to paint close to 1600 pictures of art. Governor Nelson Rockefeller said about her at the time: “There is no more renowned artist in our entire country today.”

The last illustrations she painted were for a new edition of Twas the Night before Christmas, when she was 100 years old.  She died December 13, 1961, at the age of 101.

For more information about Grandma Moses, check out the following links:

The Art of Grandma Moses at the Bennington Museum

Town of Hoosick Falls Grandma Moses Art Collection

Princeton University: Grandma Moses

Grandma Moses: Grandma to the Nation

National Portrait Gallery-150th Birthday to Grandma Moses

Diana Denner is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

Short URL: http://thefreegeorge.com/thefreegeorge/?p=17920

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