You probably know the name, Grandma Moses. Her paintings portraying idyllic scenes of American life defined nostalgia for a whole generation.
And you’ve probably heard the story of an older woman who came to painting late in life and enjoyed massive success in her final years.
But there’s a much larger story here, a whole life’s worth. Who’s the woman that became Grandma Moses?
We’re traveling to the past to find out.
The Story of Grandma Moses
Grandma Moses defined the American folk art genre. Completely untrained in the arts, she created a body of work that still has an impact. When she came into her own as an artist, tens of thousands of Americans returning from war needed an anchor.
Her work provided that by portraying the America they fought for. Snowball fights, sugar maples, and sleigh rides of the past. Freedom.
Born in 1860, Anna Mary Robertson grew up in a large family. Her father owned a flax mill and farm in Greenwich, NY. As the third of ten children, she grew up quickly.
After attending school for a few years, including art lessons, Anna started painting using natural dyes and pigments. She created landscapes made of lemon juice and ground ocher, grass and sawdust. But her family needed money, and ten children have many needs.
She went to work at 12 for a wealthy family nearby doing domestic work. Cooking and sewing, cleaning and housekeeping filled her days. The family’s father noticed her interest in their Currier and Ives prints and bought her some wax crayons.
Robertson continued working for farming families until the age of 27 when she met Thomas Moses, a hired man on the same farm. They married in 1887 and worked on farms around the area for two decades.
Anna and Thomas Moses worked for years before they finally bought a farm of their own. They had ten children, but only five survived infancy. Life wasn’t easy, but Anna found ways to make it beautiful. She painted simple things to elevate them and make them pretty. A painted fireboard, embroidered clothes, and quilting are all classic examples of her American folk art.
Her husband died in 1927 of a heart attack, and Mother Moses’ son helped keep the farm until 1936. Around this time, arthritis robbed Anna of her ability to embroider, so she picked up a paintbrush. And here is where things changed for her. Scenes from her childhood and young adult life poured out of her.
Here is where things took off for Grandma Moses. After her first painting, a postman’s Christmas gift, she realized she had a knack for it. A quick painter, Grandma Moses quickly started selling her work in local stores.
Back in the 1930s, you could buy her paintings for $3 to $5, depending on the size. But when art collector Louis J. Caldor discovered her work in 1938, things changed again.
He bought all the paintings in the drug store and ten more directly from her. The following year, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art featured her work in an exhibition for unknown painters.
In 1940, she had her first solo exhibition in New York City, followed by a 50 painting exhibition at Gimbel’s Department Store. A show in Washington D.C. followed. By 1944, her paintings spread from the U.S. to Europe.
Grandma Moses’ exhibitions drew huge crowds in the 1950s. Her paintings appeared in ads for holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Mother’s Day. This quirky, spry, sharp-witted grandmother defined American life for a generation. She’s truly an American Icon.
At 88, Grandma Moses was just getting started. She received two honorary doctorates and multiple trophies and wrote an autobiography. Throughout her final year, Moses continued painting and participating in public life. She appeared on TV shows, and a documentary about her life nearly won an Academy Award.
In fact, Her 100th birthday was declared “Grandma Moses Day” by the governor of New York and included a feature on the cover of LIFE magazine.
A few months after her 101st birthday, Grandma Moses passed away. President John F. Kennedy eulogized her by saying, “Her work…helped our nation renew its pioneer heritage and recall its roots in the countryside and on the frontier.”
What Inspired Grandma Moses?
Grandma Moses painted from her memories of rural life. Growing up working on farms and later farming with her husband, it’s a subject she was familiar with. According to an interview in the New York Times, she said, “I’ll get an inspiration and start painting; then I’ll forget everything except how things used to be.”
She wanted modern folks to see what it was like growing up. For a nation caught up in the Space Age, making apple butter on the farm seemed like a dream.
What Are Some of Grandma Moses’ Art Pieces?
Several of Grandma Moses’ paintings live in the collective memory of Americans. Her celebration of holidays and farm life were ambassadors of life in the United States. Here are some of our favorites.
Painted in 1958, Christmas portrays scenes of winter fun in her signature style. The painting captures the joy of simple farm life, a common theme in her work. Adults chat in the snow while children sled through the hills.
The painting gives the sense of a peaceful community sharing their lives. Stylized buildings and bright colors give this painting a storybook quality. Held as part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum Collection, this work is an essential part of Grandma Moses’ legacy.
This painting has the distinction of hanging in the White House since 1952. Grandma Moses wrote to Mrs. Truman and donated the painting to the American people. President Truman later installed the work after a refurbishment project.
Like many of her other paintings, the focus is on community gatherings. A dirt road winds through the town while people watch the baseball game in the center of the image. On the left side, a picnic spread awaits, complete with apple pie.
Inspired by a Currier and Ives lithograph, Sugaring Off explores a typical theme for Grandma Moses. A winter wonderland packed with activity, people fill the frame making maple syrup.
Tapping trees, boiling the sap, making maple candy in the snow, and a snowball fight make this painting feel alive. Like the other paintings we’ve discussed, Sugaring Off shows a vast panorama of life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Where Can I See Some of Grandma Moses’ Artwork?
Because of her role as one of America’s most celebrated folk artists, you can see Grandma Moses’ paintings nearly everywhere. Her art appeared on everything from dishes to cigarette packages around the turn of the century. More lasting works, such as her paintings, fill museums worldwide.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Smithsonian American Art Museum holds one of the most complete collections of American folk art. With over three hundred years of material, art lovers have plenty to see.
The seven works in the Grandma Moses collection capture a wide range of her paintings. Their collection includes Grandma Moses Goes to the Big City, Cambridge Valley, Whiteside Church, and Christmas.
Located in New York City, the SAAM is open seven days a week from 11:30 am – 7 pm. They have rotating exhibitions and special collections covering various topics and genres.
The Bennington Museum in Vermont claims the most extensive collection of Grandma Moses paintings worldwide. They even have the one-room schoolhouse where she attended primary school. There’s even a painting, Bennington, that features the museum itself.
Aside from her paintings, the museum has a collection of work from her early life not found elsewhere. Needlework, her painting apron and art table, art supplies, and a group of photos and documents fill out their archive. For art history students, this collection provides a deeper look into the life and times of Anna Mary Roberston Moses.
The museum is open from 10 am to 4 pm on a rotating schedule throughout the summer and early fall. Adult admission is $12, Seniors (62+) $10, and children 17 and under are free.
Grandma Moses Brought Us a Simpler World
Grandma Moses lived a full life before she became a force in the American folk art landscape. As a wife, mother, and farmer, her world informed the art she created. Her paintings also defined rural life in America at the turn of the century.
She gave people a look back to an uncomplicated way of life, something they craved. Loved by the American people, Grandma Moses is one of the first folk American folk artists to achieve international acclaim. And we think you’ll love her too.
Have you visited the Bennington Museum? Tell us about it in the comments!
Outside Folk Gallery
You can explore more folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans.
We’ll also be offering pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when!