Anna Mary Robertson Moses took the art world by storm in 1940 when her one-woman show of 35 paintings was held in New York. Her scenes of bucolic rural American life would go on to be featured in more than 160 exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe by the early 1950s, sparking a frenzied interest in what is now labeled “American Primitive” art. Lovingly dubbed “Grandma Moses”, her landscapes were simple with all signs of modern life stripped away, the people all doing “old-timey things” that Moses recalled from her days on farms across the Northeast. At the time she started her art career, she had about 78 years worth of memories to commit to canvass.
Born in 1860 on a farm in Greenwich, New York, she was the third of ten children. She left home at age 12 to work as a “hired girl” on various wealthy neighboring farm. At age 27, ahe met Thomas Moses at one of those farms and the two soon married. They relocated to the Shenandoah Valley near Staunton, Virginia, where they spent about two decades living and working on local farms. They moved back to New York in 1905, settling in the tiny town of Eagle Bridge on the New York-Vermont border. The couple had 10 children but only five survived infancy.
When Thomas Moses passed away in 1927, their son Forrest helped her run the farm. By this time, Moses was 67 years old but she kept working until 1936 when she retired and moved in with one of her daughters. She took up kneedlework to stay busy, embroidering simple farm scenes for her friends. When her arthritis made it too painful to hold a needle, her sister Celestia suggested she try painting. She found holding brushes was much more manageable and would swap the brush between her right and left hands when the other got tired. But she did it only for pleasure and to “keep busy and stay out of mischief,” she told TIME Magazine back in 1953. “I thought no more of it than of doing fancy work.”
Someone convinced Moses to send some of her paintings to the county fair. It was her canned fruits and jams that drew the attention, winning several ribbons. Her paintings, however, were not a great hit but somehow, a few of them ended up in a drugstore window in a nearby town. There, they caught the eye of vacationing Manhattan art dealer Louis Caldor, who bought the drugstore’s entire supply then drove to Moses’s home to buy 10 more. Caldor took them back to New York but the city’s big dealers weren’t interested. So he tried the newly opened Galerie St. Etienne, where he found a huge fan in owner Otto Kallir, who immediately put Moses under contract.
Her first big solo exhibition, “What a Farm Wife Painted,” was in 1940 at the young age of 80. She exhibited under the name Mrs. Moses but the press dubbed her “Grandma Moses” and it stuck. In fact, she actually built a whole brand around it, whether she realized it at the time or not. The press and the public alike adored her nostalgic paintings but they also couldn’t get enough of her story. She captured their hearts and imaginations with her humble background and the hardships she’d endured. She was a grandmother with no formal art training or even much practice, yet her paintings were hanging in galleries around the world. She was exactly the inspiration America and Europe needed at the time. As art dealer Jane Kallir explained: “Facing the harsh realities of the Cold-War era, the public took heart in a real-life tale that seemed to prove the old adage, ‘it’s never too late.’”
As Grandma Moses’s fame grew, so did the price of her paintings. Early pictures sold from $3 to $5 a piece but within just a few years, her work was selling for upwards of $5,000 to $10,000, an absolute fortune at that time. She was also a prolific painter, producing more than 2,000 works in just over two decades. Her paintings also attracted the attention of Hallmark, which reproduced them on greeting cards, tiles, ceramics, and other collectibles…and which is said to have been what really made Grandma Moses wealthy. Her net worth was estimated to be between $1.5-$5 million when she died in 1961 at the age of 101.
In 1952, she published “My Life’s History,” her autobiography. In it she said “I look back on my life like a good day’s work, it was done and I feel satisfied with it. I was happy and contented, I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered. And life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.” (Sources: TIME, Wikipedia, NMWA)