Grandma Moses was born as Anna Mary Robertson on September 7, 1860. She grew up in Greenwich, a small community in upstate New York with five brothers and four sisters. Her father, Russell King Robertson, was a farmer and operated a flax mill. Moses’s five brothers helped their father at the mill and on the farm, while she and her sisters were taught different domestic duties. At the age of twelve, Anna Mary began working at a neighboring farm, helping a wealthier family with their household chores She continued to work as a “hired girl” for fifteen years until she met a “hired man” at the age of 27. His name was Thomas Salmon Moses; they married on November 9, 1887.
Hours after their wedding, Anna Mary and Thomas Moses got on a train and headed for North Carolina, where Thomas had secured a job managing a horse ranch. However, the couple never made it past Staunton, Virginia. There, they were persuaded to become tenants of a local farm. On the farm, Anna Mary bought a cow and began churning butter to help earn money for the family. When times were tough, she also made and sold potato chips. She gave birth to ten children; only five survived past infancy. Eventually the family had earned enough money to purchase their own farm.
In 1905, Thomas persuaded his family to return North because he was homesick. They bought a farm in Eagle Bridge, New York and named it “Mount Nebo” after the Biblical mountain where Moses disappeared. On the farm on January 15, 1927, Thomas Moses died of a heart attack. With all of her children already grown, Anna Mary Moses continued to work on the farm. In 1932, her daughter Anna suffered from tuberculosis and Moses went to Bennington to care for her. Moses began stitching pictures which she called “worsted” after her daughter challenged her to recreate a picture embroidered in yarn. Eventually, Moses’s arthritis made holding a needle very difficult; her sister Celestia suggested that she try painting her scenes instead. Moses’s painting career began at the age of 78.
Moses worked with whatever materials were readily available. Her first paintings were created by using house paint and leftover canvas or fireboard. She had little concern for perspective and proportion as a self-taught artist. She tended to paint happy scenes of childhood memories of life in New York and farm-life in Virginia. She purposely left out telephone poles, tractors, and other elements of the effects of industrialization.
The painting accumulated quickly; Moses did not know what to do with them all. She sent some to the Cambridge country fair, as well as her canned fruits and jams. She won a prize for her fruit and jams but not her paintings. In 1936-1937, Caroline Thomas invited Moses to contribute some of her painting to a women’s exchange she was organizing. Caroline Thomas was the wife of the druggist in Hoosick Falls and the objects/crafts created by local homemakers were to sit in the drugstore window for several years. In April 1938, Louis J. Caldor discovered Moses’s paintings on display of W.D. Thomas Pharmacy and instantly recognized her talent. He purchased all the paintings Moses had completed and got her name and address with the intent of meeting her in person.
Caldor said he would make Anna Mary Moses famous. He brought all the paintings he purchased to New York City and set off to begin exhibiting her work professionally. He went to museums and galleries and found that even the people who admired her work lost interest because of the artist’s age. Dealers felt they would never earn a profit from their initial investment and Moses did not seem worth the effort. Candor continued to persist, and in 1939, collector Sidney Janis selected three paintings to be on private viewing at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition it was a part of was only open to Museum members, so it made no impact at first.
In 1940, Caldor stopped at Galerie St. Etienne, founded by Otto Kallir, who was interested in the work of self-taught painters. Many people believed that the work of artists who denied the academic tradition was purer and more original than artists who had formal training. In October 1940, Anna Mary Robertson had her first public exhibition titled “What a Farmwife Painted.” The exhibition was very well attended. Months later a journalist at New York’s Herald Tribune came across Moses’s paintings and popularized the nickname “Grandma Moses.”
After her exhibition closed at Galerie St. Etienne, Grandma Moses received even more success during a Thanksgiving Festival organized by Gimbels Department Store. A group of paintings were on display at Gimbels in New York where Grandma Moses gave a public talk which brought her much publicity. Soon Grandma Moses was known as a local celebrity. However, her fame was confined to New York State. Moses refused to sign a formal contract with Kallir for years, believing she could manage everything herself. Finally, in 1944, she agreed to be represented exclusively by the Galerie St. Etienne and the American British Art Center after experiencing many difficulties working on her own.
Grandma Moses quickly became a national and then international celebrity. Kallir organized a series of traveling exhibitions that would bring Moses’s work to more than thirty American states and ten European nations. Her paintings became instantly recognizable and were printed on holiday cards, dinner plates, and curtain fabrics. In 1949, Moses traveled to Washington to receive a special reward from President Truman. The following year, a documentary about her life, directed by Jerome Hill, was nominated for an Academy Award. In 1952, her autobiography, “My Life’s History,” was published. In 1953 she appeared on the cover of Time magazine and in 1960 Life magazine did a cover story to celebrate the artist’s 100th birthday. Her birthday was declared “Grandma Moses Day” by New York governor, Nelson Rockefeller.
Grandma Moses passed away December 13, 1961, several months after her 101st birthday. Her death was the front page news all over the United States and across Europe. Grandma Moses painting continue to captivate the modern world because their idyllic scenes of American life and their abstract artist values.
Entry written by Rachel Mancour, 2019 Walt Reed Distinguished Scholar Intern
 “Anna Mary Robertson (‘Grandma’) Moses (1860-1961).” Galerie St. Etienne. n.d. July 10, 2019. https://www.gseart.com/artist/anna-mary-robertson-grandma-moses/bio.
 “Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Robertson Moses).” National Museum of Women in the Arts. n.d. July 10, 2019. https://nmwa.org/explore/artist-profiles/grandma-moses-anna-mary-robertson-moses.
 “Grandma Moses.” Bennington Museum. n.d. July 10, 2019. https://benningtonmuseum.org/portfolio-items/grandma-moses/.
Image from: https://www.wikiart.org/en/grandma-moses