Extraordinary Lives: Grandma Moses

All you have to do is dream

Annie Robertson “Grandma” Moses

Annie Mary Robertson aka Grandma Moses (Photo: Wikicommons)

Seven years after the Civil War ended, many small farms fell on hard times, forcing young girls like Annie Robertson to leave home and family to earn a living. A neighboring farmer’s wife asked if she would come to work for them. As a nasty wind wrapped itself around her, Annie set out on the 10-mile walk to the Whiteside home. She was used to the cold, but heavy snow had dropped the night before and her bootprints made tiny holes resembling a cribbage board, a game of chance with few certainties. She continued steadily onwards as her intelligent, mischievous gray eyes gazed down the less-traveled path.

When Annie arrived at Ralph and Alice Whiteside’s home, she discovered a scene of warmth and merriment to her unexpected delight. A dreamy calm settled over her, a memory she would hold close in later years. As the jovial couple sat in their easy chairs side by side, smiling at her and each other, warmly wrapped in patchwork blankets and enjoying a cup of hot tea, the Whitesides asked, “how do you take yours,” before she could even sit down.

Her first words, as her mother had rehearsed, were, “May I please be your housekeeper? Annie Robertson was 12 years old.

The new family took to the hardworking young pixie as if she was their daughter. The handsome rugs and fine furniture in the home gave Annie a feeling of living in a dollhouse. When they saw her marveling at a Currier and Ives print on the wall, the Whitesides gave her a set of chalks and crayons at Christmastime. She added lemon and grape juice to the palette to draw more vibrant landscapes. The Whitesides proclaimed it was a sign.

When Annie turned 27, she fell in love and married Thomas Moses, a strapping young “hired man” on the farm, and they moved to the Mount Airy Farm in Virginia. He handled the heavy chores while she baked potato chips and churned butter to supplement their wages, and over time they were able to afford a farm of their own. The Moses’s and their five children moved to Eagle Bridge, a small town in upstate New York. It was a working-class life, but Annie stayed busy doing housework and, in her spare time, tended to ‘hobbies,’ as she called them, like quilting, knitting, and embroidery. They were not easy times but she found life rewarding in small and large ways, and she taught herself no matter the circumstance to greet every day with a sense of joy and anticipation.

Annie Moses never read Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina or she might have been familiar with the first line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It was all too prophetic for the Moses family. Challenges mounted like a late November storm that comes without warning. It seemed Annie was being led to some uncertain destiny as periods of deep anguish became commonplace. Her husband died of a sudden heart attack at age 67. The farmhouse where they raised their family burned down just as the Great Depression began. Moses moved in with her daughter when her health suffered from the burden of giving birth to ten children, although only five survived infancy. She developed severe arthritis and could no longer hold an embroidery or quilting needle.

Most of us would or wallow in despair or feel completely lost. Annie Moses never thought about it that way. In her world, there were no anti-depression drugs or therapy, no health spas or, alternatively, days of rage or blame the system protests or any of the quick fixes we look to nowadays. She resisted self-pity or the delusion that her burden was too great to bear. For Annie, this was a moment of reckoning, and she didn’t need Tolstoy to remind her that the happiest moments in life were those when we choose victory over victimhood. There was no question her life had veered off course, but the job facing her was how to take back the wheel. Her cure was found in work and creativity, turning time into something useful and valuable, and concentrating on things that brought her joy. Her sister Celestia helped by urging her to try painting as it would be easier on sore hands. Then, after it became too painful to hold the brush in the right, she switched to her left hand.

Although she would never call it art, only ‘her hobby,’ painting quickly turned into more than a pastime. She wrote, “I pick up my brushes so people will know how we once lived.” When she told people she hoped to become an artist one day, some rolled their eyes, “of course you do,” and the skepticism was understandable. Annie Moses was 78 years old.

Grandma Moses “Home, 1944” (author’s collection)

But the dream had been in the recesses of her mind since childhood. As she looked back more than seventy years, “I was quite small, and I remember my father would get me white unlined paper. He liked to see me draw pictures. The paper cost a penny a sheet and lasted longer than candy.” A parent’s encouragement turned into a dream that inspired a child, not for the first time.

Moses never had any formal art training. She chose simple childhood memories of New England, verdant landscapes and outdoorsy scenes of countryfolk at work and play, referring to them as “old-timey.” She would paint when the mood struck, which was often, and said, “I get an inspiration and start painting, and then I’ll forget everything else.” Collectors of Grandma Moses aren’t looking for elements of modern life like telephones and televisions. Her painting is called ‘primitive’ because it lacks the perspective of traditional art, but a more appropriate term is ‘naive’ as she portrays life as we believe it once was and as many wish we still lived today.

Granma Mosese “Early Fall” (author’s collection)

Moses was known only locally until an art collector, Louis J. Caldor, saw her paintings in a drug store window in 1938 and bought everything he could get his hands on, including ten more from her Eagle Bridge house for $5 each. By 1939, her fame grew, and three of her paintings were included in New York’s Museum of Modern Art exhibition entitled “Contemporary Unknown American Painters.” She wouldn’t be unknown for long. Moses caught the media’s attention later that year, and because of her age of 77, they called her Grandma Moses, and it stuck. Although she would not have her first solo exhibit until 1940 called “What a Farm Wife Painted,” at Otto Kallir’s Galerie St. Etienne, it was wildly popular, and the surprise was a table laden with samples of her baked goods and preserves.

Grandma Moses painted 1,500 canvasses over three decades, all of them numbered in her small, delicate handwriting on the reverse side, and priced to sell by size at $5 or $10 per painting, the way one buys a 2x4 plank. The math reveals she painted roughly one canvass per week for thirty years. It matches the herculean labors of Egypt’s pyramid masons, although they most certainly didn’t start at age 78. In the end, her art passion paid off. By 2006, Sugaring Off sold for $1.2 million. Grandma Moses would have calculated the price at $5,000 per square inch.

In a moment of pure candor that reflected an old school cash register mentality, and the grit that brought her fame and fortune, a TV news anchor asked Moses if she felt any misgivings about selling her artwork. Grandma Moses corrected him, referring to her painting as “a hobby” and never “art.” Then she replied, “I think I’d rather have the money.”

Her work would be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, with name recognition this time, and grace the cover of Hallmark greeting cards and national magazines. When she reached 88, Mademoiselle magazine named her a “Young Woman of the Year.” Norman Rockwell honored her by painting Grandma Moses into the far left edge of Christmas Homecoming for the December cover of The Saturday Evening Post. After her death, Grandma Moses‘s popularity led to “Granny” in the 1960s comedy television series The Beverly Hillbillies. The character was given the stage name of Daisy Moses.

Norman Rockwell’s Christmas Homecoming

In 1961, Annie Robertson Moses died at age 101. President John F. Kennedy memorialized her: “Grandma Moses’s paintings restored a primitive freshness to our perception of America. Both her work and her life helped our nation renew its pioneer heritage and recall its roots in the countryside and on the frontier.” The New York Times said, “Grandma Moses was a tiny, lively woman with a mischievous wit, sharp-tongued with a sycophant and stern with an errant grandchild.” But perhaps a German fan said it best, “There emanates from her a light-hearted optimism. You feel at home in these pictures, and you know their meaning.”

After transforming a hardscrabble life into a three-part Shakespearean drama complete with scenes of tragedy and comedy, and a heroine for the ages, Grandma Moses revealed the secret to her extraordinary life: “I look back on my life like a good day’s work, and I feel happy and contented. I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered. Life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.”

Annie Mary Robertson Moses, known as Grandma Moses, at her canvas.

Grandma Moses art can be seen, according to Wikipedia:

Professor of Leadership. Extraordinary Lives Project. Author “Be Somebody” (2021); 2019 Telly Award IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher Forbes