Anna Robertson Moses was like the rest of us, with one exception.
She was one of 10 children growing up on a farm and strictly a working-class girl by anyone’s definition. She had a dream that she would become a famous artist one day, and of course, people rolled their eyes and said she would get over that.
Anna didn’t listen. That was the exception.
At age 12, she moved to a neighbor’s farm as a live-in housekeeper. She was mannered and thoughtful, and well-liked by her family employers. They noticed how fascinated she was by the Currier and Ives prints on the walls of their home and gave her a set of chalks and wax crayons so she could draw in her spare time. While she lived at home, she met and fell in love with a local farmhand, Thomas Moses. After they married and saved enough money, the couple moved to a farm of their own, where they settled and had five children.
If you were a woman like Anna Moses, born in 1860 during the early years of the Civil War, you would spend your time taking care of your home and family. For Anna Moses, this meant using her natural talent to make things by quilting, knitting, or needlepoint.
Anna’s story would end about here, but her arthritis at age 76 became so severe she switched to painting from needlework. Her sister suggested it would be easier on her fingers than embroidery. When holding a brush in her right hand became too painful, she switched and painted with her left.
She was also suffering from the devastating loss of her husband, Thomas, when their house burned down. Painting to Anna Moses became a kind of escape.
“I’ll forget everything, everything except how things used to be and how to paint it so people will know how we used to live.”
Moses studied and painted scenes from childhood, referring to them as “old-timey” landscapes of New England’s countryside. She said she would “get an inspiration and start painting; then I’ll forget everything, everything except how things used to be and how to paint it, so people will know how we used to live.”
She was known for ‘primitive art’ because her compositions lacked the basic perspective of traditional art. Since she never had any formal training, as her career advanced, she created more panoramic paintings, going for charming subjects over complex style.
She was always an artist but only locally known until 1938 when a major art collector saw her work and bought several pieces. When the media noticed she was 78, they began calling her Grandma Moses. She soon became famous as an artist who painted naive images of country life in America.
Her work and life helped our nation recall its roots in the countryside and on the frontier. — President Kennedy
Presidents Truman and JFK lauded her. Her work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and has graced Hallmark greeting cards to national magazine covers. In 1952, she wrote her autobiography, My Life’s History: “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.”
In her lifetime, she painted 1,500 paintings over three decades from age 78. Her paintings started at $5, and eventually, her works fetched $10,000 to over $1 million today.
She died in 1961 at the age of 101. President John F. Kennedy memorialized her: “The death of Grandma Moses removed a beloved figure from American life. The directness and vividness of her paintings restored a primitive freshness to our perception of the American scene. Her work and life helped our nation renew its pioneer heritage and recall its roots in the countryside and frontier. All Americans mourn her loss.”
In her obituary, the New York Times said of Grandma Moses: “The simple realism, nostalgic atmosphere and luminous color with which Grandma Moses portrayed simple farm life and rural countryside won her a wide following. Grandma Moses charmed wherever she went. A tiny, lively woman with mischievous gray eyes and a quick wit, she could be sharp-tongued with a sycophant and stern with an errant grandchild.”
Some facts about Grandma Moses:
- The character Granny on the popular 1960s rural comedy television series The Beverly Hillbillies was named Daisy Moses as an homage to Grandma Moses, who died shortly before the series began.
- Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses were friends who lived over the Vermont-New York state border from each other. Moses lived in Eagle Bridge, New York, and after 1938 the Rockwells had a house in nearby Arlington, Vermont.
- Grandma Moses appears on the far left edge in the Norman Rockwell painting Christmas Homecoming, printed on The Saturday Evening Post’s December cover.
You can find her work exhibited at:
- Bennington Museum in Bennington, Vermont, holds the largest public collection of Moses’s paintings.
- Brooklyn Museum, New York City
- Figge Art Museum, Davenport, Iowa
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
- Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, Laurel, Mississippi
- Maier Museum of Art at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Virginia
- Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
- National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.
- The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
- Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona
- University of Iowa Museum of Art: