Farm to Fame: Grandma Moses's Twilight Journey

How a 79-year-old reinvented herself and changed the art world.

Jeff Cunningham
5 min readMar 15, 2024

Seven years after the dust of the Civil War settled, as the world quieted, there was no longer an army to feed. Small farms like Annie Robertson's felt the pinch of peace, and her family struggled. So that was how she found herself stepping onto a cold, snowy trail that she hoped would lead to a lifelong adventure, not of art and fame, but of survival and dreams.

She was twelve years old.

Annie was led to the Whiteside farm by some strange destiny. It was a 10-mile trek through biting winds and snow that painted her path in tiny bootprints. Ralph and Alice Whiteside welcomed Annie, offering a spot by the fireplace. Beaming at the young girl, they asked her how she liked her tea. Then, as her mother instructed, Annie said, "May I please be your housekeeper?" And with a smile and a sip of tea, Annie embraced a new chapter.

The Whitesides' home, with its handsome rugs and fine furniture, had several Currier and Ives prints on the wall. When the Whitesides noticed how she marveled at them, they gave her a set of chalks and crayons at Christmas. She added lemon and grape juice to the palette to draw more vibrant landscapes. A dreamy calm settled as she began to draw.

Years flew by, and Annie, now 27, fell in love with Thomas Moses, a strong hired man working on the farm. Together, they embarked on a life filled with love, family, butter churning, and potato chip baking. Moving to their farm in Eagle Bridge, New York, they carved out a tough life sprinkled with joy. Now a mother and a homemaker, Annie filled her spare time with 'hobbies' as she called them, like quilting, knitting, and embroidery that colored her world.

Annie Robertson Moses never read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. However, she might have been familiar with the first line: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." It seemed Annie was being led to some uncertain destiny, where she would shortly discover the difference.

Her husband died of a sudden heart attack at age 67. The farmhouse where they lived burned down just as the Great Depression began. Moses had to move in with her daughter as her health suffered from the burden of giving birth to ten children, although only five survived infancy. Then, her arthritis made it too painful to grasp knitting needles.

Encouraged by a gentle whisper from her sister Celestia, she turned to painting. What began as a therapeutic "hobby" quickly transformed into an extraordinary artistic journey. When brushing with her right hand became too painful, she switched to the left.

Grandma Moses "Home, 1944" (author's collection)

Annie's 'hobby' blossomed into a canvas of nostalgia, capturing the simple, beautiful tapestry of northern farm life she once knew. Her work 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 79, they called her Grandma Moses. Although she would not have her first solo exhibit until 1940, "What a Farm Wife Painted," at Otto Kallir's Galerie St. Etienne, it was wildly popular. The surprise was a table laden with samples of her baked goods and preserves for sale next to her art.

Moses never had 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 often painted when the mood struck, saying, "I get an inspiration and start painting, and then I'll forget everything else."

Granma Moses "Early Fall" (author's collection)

Grandma Moses wrote, “I pick up my brushes so people will know how we once lived." She painted 1,500 canvasses over three decades, all numbered in her small, delicate handwriting on the reverse side and priced to sell by size at $5 or $10 per painting. She painted roughly one canvas per week for thirty years. In the end, her passion for art paid well. By 2006, Sugaring Off sold for $1.2 million.


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 on 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. Her work and life helped our nation renew its pioneer heritage and recall its roots in the countryside and 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 know their meaning."

Grandma Moses revealed the secret to her extraordinary life:

"I look back on my life like a good day's work and 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."

In a moment of pure honesty, 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."

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

Grandma Moses' art: