The amazing painter Grandma Moses was a unique American folk artist, yet she only became a serious painter at 78-years-old. She proved that you are never too old to start a new career, or reach for a dream.
Anna Mary Robertson, was born in 1860, in New York, to a farming family. She was the third child of ten and had a happy childhood, working hard on the family farm alongside her siblings. Anna only had sporadic periods of schooling, such as a few months in winter and in summer, when the farm work permitted it. She liked to draw pictures, colouring them with the juice of berries and grapes, just as her father had once painted simple scenes on the walls in their home. Her first artwork was making dolls out of paper, as she had few toys.
Anna had a distaste for the restrictions placed on her gender and those limitations were severe in the late 20th century. A woman was not even permitted to have a passport in her own name.
Anna left home at age 12 to work as a hired girl on a neighbouring farm. That was where she was introduced to the paintings of Currier and Ives.
Anna was only 17 when she married farmer Thomas Moses, in 1887. She eventually gave birth to 10 children, though only five survived past infancy. In the 19th century it was not uncommon for children to die from tuberculosis, infancy diarrhea, bacillary dysentery, typhoid fever, small pox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, or lobar pneumonia. Or any of the other highly contagious childhood diseases. At times food insecurity also caused infant deaths.
Birthing a child was considered dangerous, as 500 to 1,000 mothers died for every 100,000 births. Despite all this, families still averaged seven to eight children. Contraception was totally unheard of, and probably considered a ‘sin’.
First Large Painting
Anna’s first large painting, was when she ran out of wallpaper. Innovative from the start, she put up white paper and painted a scene. Her husband loved her work and wanted her to do more painting. Anna protested she didn’t have time.
This first painting, Fireboard, hangs in the Bennington Museum in Bennington, Vermont. Anna knew every aspect, function and smell of farm life, from canning, quilting, spinning, crafting, milking, baking and cooking.
Not only did the feisty Anna work as a farm wife and mother on their dairy farm, she helped support her family by selling various homemade foods at the local market. Life was full, from daylight to dusk, as is portrayed in the activity in the vividly coloured scenes she would eventually paint.
Thomas Moses died in 1927, after 40 years of married life. Their son and daughter-in-law took over the farm. Anna disliked knitting and sewing, but her daughter encouraged her to begin making needlework pictures and quilts portraying colourful scenes of farm life.
At the age of 78, Anna became unable to continue embroidering because of painful arthritis. Friends suggested she go back to her childhood love of painting the scenes instead, and Anna took to the new challenge in earnest.
A Super Ager
Anna was known to say, “If I hadn’t taken up painting I would have continued rearing chickens.” When asked why she took up painting, she said, “To keep me out of mischief.”
Like many people with disability of some form, she refused to let the disability define who she was. Anna was an early 20th century Super Ager. These are women in their 80s who have the ability to perform as good as, or better than those much younger than they are. These are women who refuse to quit.
Anna worked with whatever materials she could get her hands on, having no access to high-quality art materials. She used house paint and leftover canvas or fireboard for her paintings. As a self-taught artist, Anna showed little concern for perspective or proportion. With no fine brushes available, she used matches and pins to paint the finer details of her figures.
Her early work was based on scenes from illustrated books and Currier and Ives prints made during the 1800s. They showed historical events, and American celebrities. The truth is that most great pieces of work are created from the shoulders of other greats.
Naivety To Anna’s Work
Despite all the sorrow and heartache Anna experienced in her life, her pictures show happy scenes of fields, storms, barn dances and holidays in rural New York and Virginia in the late 19th and early 20th century.
There was a naivety to her ‘American Primitive’ work that was renowned for its purity and vividness of colour, attention to detail and vigour. In her winter landscape paintings she sprinkled glitter over the snow. Some critics called it amateurish to use a nontraditional material, but she was her own person. No one was going to tell her what to do and she continued to use glitter.
I laughed when I read this as I once scraped the paper off a watercolour painting, to create the tips of wild waves. It was the only piece of my work that actually got picked to be shown in an exhibition. Although I enjoyed painting, I never took it seriously like Grandma Moses.
Anna deliberately omitted any element that belonged to signs of industrialization, such as telephone poles or tractors. She was determined to capture images of the old America, before it completely disappeared.
Grandma Moses lived through one of the most tumultuous eras in human history. She was five-years-old when President Lincoln was assassinated. She lived through two world wars, the Depression, and went from the horse and buggy to the era of television and jet plane’s flying high in the sky. If ever there was a time of enormous adaptation needed, it was the era Grandma Moses lived through. She never knew the demands of a technologically driven life.
Anna painted scenes she had lived in. She used the unusual method of completing the entire scene before she went back and painted in the human and animal figures. She mastered the art of primitive painting and used a linear format, flat, one-dimensional space. There was an absence of shadows around the shapes. There is no despair, unhappiness, or aging in her paintings, making them almost unrealistic, yet charmingly powerful as the ‘people’ went about day-to-day living.
In 1937, New York engineer and art collector, Louis J. Calder chanced upon Moses’ work hanging in a drugstore window while he was on vacation. It was the height of The Great Depression. He drove to her farm and purchased the remaining stock of 15 paintings. Her paintings were exhibited at the ‘Contemporary Unknown Painters’ show in New York City, but the artist had to be present. Many galleries liked her work, but didn’t want to back an aged artist.
Her first one-woman show in 1940 set her on the road to fame – she was 80-years-old. The New York Herald Tribune noted that her neighbours called ‘Grandma Moses’. By 1943, there was an overwhelming demand for her work, as people appreciated her nostalgic charm and she earned the reputation being an American folk artist. She created wonderful feelings and memories for many people as they remembered an America long gone. “I never know what I am going to paint until I 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.”
Over Two Decades of Painting
Grandma Moses exhibited her work internationally right up to her 90s. She continued painting until just a few months before her death at 101-years-old having enjoyed her art for over two-and-a-half decades. Anna was an example of someone beginning a successful career at an advanced age.
Anna’s nostalgic depictions of rural America were widely reproduced. In 1947 alone, 16 million greeting cards featured her paintings. There was fabric printed and plates depicting her paintings. There was even a record called ‘The Grandma Moses Suite’.
Grandma Moses appeared on magazine covers, was interviewed on television and a documentary was made of her life. She won numerous awards and was awarded two honorary doctoral degrees. At age 88 she became the ‘Young Woman of the Year’ which is almost a dichotomy. In 1949 President Truman presented her with the Women’s National Press Club Award for outstanding accomplishment in art. At age 92 she published an autobiography, My Life’s History. Grandma Moses had nine grandchildren and over 30 great-grandchildren.
Hanging in Museums
Many of Grandma Moses’ paintings are displayed in the collections of museums and one hangs in The White House. It is reported that Grandma Moses did around 2000 paintings. That is an average of 87 paintings per year. Not too many artists can claim to be that prolific.
As was the case with all well-known artists, they seldom received the income their work would eventually bring. Grandma Moses’ painting once sold for as little as $3. In 2006, the Sugaring Off was sold for $US1.3 million. Grandma Moses’ ‘voice’ continues to be heard. Many other artists have copied the work of Anna Mary Robertson but there will always only be one Grandma Moses.
Queen Elizabeth II, was another well-known face and another determined woman who worked diligently up to an advanced age. The Queen worked to within a few days of her death at age 96, having dedicated her life to service across seven decades. It is women like Grandma Moses and Queen Elizabeth that are great examples of what women can achieve if they set their mind to it. “Life is what we make it. Always has been. Always will be,” Grandma Moses.
It is said that the kind, witty, character ‘Granny’ Daisy Mae Moses Clampett in the television comedy series, The Beverly Hillbillies, was actually modelled on Grandma Moses. Anna died the year before the series went to air and this was a homage to the widely loved artist.
If you ask Google for women who succeeded late in life, they come up with a list of women classed as ‘old’ in this sense, around 30-years old. Women are not expected to succeed in a career after this, let alone start a new one.
Susan Boyle was the exception to this, starting her successful singing career at age 47. It’s interesting to note despite her glorious voice, she couldn’t get record companies, radio competitions, or TV shows to recognize her until she reluctantly entered Britain’s Got Talent. This proves that success does need the right ‘breaks’, just as Grandma Moses found success only after someone with the necessary know-how noticed her work. Having said that, it is important to reach out and not give up on your dream. Have the courage to do what you enjoy and enjoy what you do.
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