Artists Who Started Late in Life: Grandma Moses
Right Place, Right Time
As you may or may not know, I am an artist. What is more I appreciate the stories and struggles that artists have to endure to make the mark in history that some of them have made. Many times it just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I know that it seems like artists who are not very talented or who show no more talent than some others who did not achieve fame did, however it is a lot of chance, happenstance and who you know more than talent most of the time.
Here is a lady who was in the right place at the right time with the right simplicity for the war weary times.
Grandma Moses 1860-1961
Completely uneducated in art and considered a primitive and folk artist, Grandma Moses only began painting in earnest at the age of 78 when her husband died and left her some money. Her work is still loved in the US and abroad. Grandma Moses created works of rural life from the early days of her childhood and depict a nostalgia that is simple and beautiful.
Have you ever seen any of Grandma Moses work in person?
Anna Mary Robertson
Her birth name was Anna Mary Robertson, the middle child in a large farm family in upstate New York. By the time she was 12, she was making a living and helping out by being a live-in housekeeper and taking care of the children in another farm family nearby. She only went to school when the children she was looking after went, and then only in the summer months, because she didn’t own a coat and couldn’t go in the winter. This meant she didn’t go to school often but learned enough to survive as a good farm wife of the last century. She knew how to sew, cook and clean, as well as taking care of children.
Anna and Thomas Moses
Soon Anna met and married Thomas Moses and they moved to Virginia where he was a share cropper, farming other people’s land. They had 10 children there in Virginia but 5 of them didn’t survive infancy. She used to say that she had 5 angels planted in the Shenandoah Valley. Her only access to art supplies during those years was when she had a little paint left over from painting the barn or fences. She also had wool and stitched some of her first real pictures. However Thomas must have been doing well during this time because he was able to save enough for them to buy some property and move back to upstate New York. Her new home was so close to Vermont that Anna said she could throw a rock into Vermont from her kitchen window.
Arthritis stopped the stitchery
Thomas died of a heart attack in 1927 leaving her to take care of the farm with the help of one of her sons. She developed arthritis in her hands at the age of 76, which made the stitched pictures she was used to doing very painful. Her sister suggested painting would be easier. She began painting in earnest with the extra money Thomas left her. It was inspired mostly by prints of Currier and Ives she had seen in the homes of the children she had cared for in the early years. With few materials and only a love of the memory of her childhood, she began painting and soon gained the interest of a local furniture salesman. He asked to put her paintings on his walls to decorate the store. She only relented when he reminded her that selling some would give her more money to buy more painting supplies. Later some art dealers from New York City happened into the store and saw something special in the simplicity and back to a simpler way of life that she depicted.
Art shows in New York City
Her first art show was labeled as “Mrs. Moses, a farm wife” but subsequent shows dubbed her Grandma Moses and the name stuck. She was surprised about the fame and the news reporters that kept finding her. She felt herself a simple woman with a love of painting and nothing more. Yet she charmed people wherever she went with her wit and quick tongue. When asked how she began a painting, the reporter waited, expecting to hear her explain her drawing process or style development or even her muse approach. She instead explained how she first found a frame and then cut a hunk of wood to fit the frame. In her estimation the painting was nothing without a frame so she started there. Artists know this is the opposite of the usual approach but part of her charm. When asked what she was going to do with all the money she made from her art, she merely said she would send her grandkids to college. I imagine she did.
10 American Primitives
Her art is still traveling around the world in art shows. She is well loved in Japan where the recent show advertised as “10 American Primitives” was relabeled by the Japanese as “Grandma Moses and 9 others.” Her work shows a style of breaking the perspective rules that the Japanese seem to admire.
TV show from the 50's
A few years ago I was watching Public Television. Some nameless retro show came on from the 50’s. It was one of the first shows that tried to be “variety” all things to all people. They interviewed a prizefighter for a few minutes asking how he prepared for a fight. I really wasn’t interested. Then they switched to a scientist who had just discovered some cure that is from so long ago, I was only mildly interested. Just as I was thinking there must be something good on somewhere else, the announcer said, “and now via satellite… we take you to upstate New York to the home of Grandma Moses.” I was stunned and intrigued. I had read about her and saw photos but never in my wildest dreams did I think there was actual footage somewhere of her working. Sure enough, in glowing black and white, there she was. At that time she was 92 years old and was painting. Her easel was a chest of drawers with one drawer open to lean the painting against, the bottom of the painting in her lap. I read that she always painted on wood and not canvas. She was painting a white picket fence and painted the straightest line I have ever seen. I hope and pray I am that steady at 92! It was a fascinating interview that only lasted about 6 or 7 minutes but I loved it. I got to see and hear the actual Grandma Moses. No wonder so many people loved her. She was charming.
101 Years Young
She died at the age of 101 years young, having left the world richer for her few years of painting a life she fondly remembered in the late 1800s!
I love stories about women artist who made it big because so few of them have ever been really recognized for their talent and a male dominated art world. But Grandma Moses was one of the few and I do admire her.