Anna Mary Robertson Moses was born on September 7, 1860 in Greenwich, New York. She was an industrious worker, and she and her brothers were essential to the day-to-day operations of her family’s farm. She always enjoyed art, and created art supplies through innovative methods, such as painting with natural materials including lemon, sawdust, grass, and grape.
Born into a life of difficulty, she went to do domestic work at a nearby farm at the age of 12. While working, the family she worked for noticed her affinity for art; they bought her chalk and crayons so she could paint on her own.
In 1887, she married Thomas Salmon Moses, who also worked on the farm. Salmon and Anna both came from the North, but they hoped to attain financial success in the Reformation-era South, so they moved to Staunton, Virginia. Anna became Mother Moses when she had five children, and they all farmed. When times were tough, Anna bought a cow and sold milk and butter. Later, she produced potato chips.
In 1905, the Moses family returned to New York and bought a farm in Eagle Bridge, which was not far from Anna’s birthplace. The couple named their farm Mount Nebo after the mountain where Moses disappeared in the Bible. Tragically, Salmon died in 1927 from a heart attack, thus leaving 67 year old Anna (who at this time was Grandma Moses) alone with her grown children.
Her art blossomed again in the 1930s after she went to care for her sick daughter. Her daughter, also Anna, pushed Grandma Moses to duplicate embroidered images. Grandma Moses made and distributed many stitched images. When her arthritis made this too painful, Grandma Moses picked up a paintbrush and created a legacy.
Grandma Moses produced artworks that were reminiscent of her past, a time when the New England landscape didn’t include tractors or telephone poles. Having lived in the rural U.S. for her whole life, it was fitting that her images centered on country life. Her works have a skewed sense of perspective, which was likely caused by her self-taught artistry.
Her folk art caught the eye of Louis Caldor, a collector from New York City, in 1938 – when Grandma Moses was 78. Caldor had limited success in distributing and exhibiting her paintings because most collectors didn’t see the investment potential in working with an elderly artist.
Nonetheless, she was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1939 and Otto Kallir’s Galerie St. Etienne in 1940. She became a celebrity in New York when her works were featured at Gimbels in 1940; at a meet-and-greet, she distributed jams to eager viewers.
In the following years, Grandma Moses became an international celebrity when her paintings were featured in a traveling exhibit. Her paintings were spread throughout the world on Hallmark cards and other products, like cigarettes and stamps. Her art became a symbol of American holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
She was celebrated across all forms of media. In 1959, President Harry Truman awarded Grandma Moses with the Women’s National Press Club trophy. A documentary about her life and works was nominated for an Academy Award in 1950. She published an autobiography, My Life’s History in 1952. She became a symbol of the American dream, as she epitomized the the possibility of moving from rags to riches. President John F. Kennedy explained that Moses painted with such beauty that made all Americans feel nostalgia for the country’s past.
Grandma Moses passed away on December 13, 1961, when she was 101 years old. Her folk art continues to awe viewers, and it shows the beauty of the world as it once was. In New York, you can see some of Grandma Moses’ art at the Brooklyn Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Grandma Moses’ life shows us all that it’s truly never too late to follow your dreams.
Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY, USA +1 718 638 5000
By Sean Scarisbrick
Sean is a graduate student at Hunter College where he studies Middle Eastern history. He is particularly interested in cultural history and language’s contribution to culture. He loves Shakespeare, Malala Yousafzai, Game of Thrones, foreign languages (Arabic, Spanish, and French), and Arabic street art.