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Grandma Moses: Secrets of Success

Updated on February 12, 2018
Ilonagarden profile image

I like to delve into the history, costuming, foods, and customs of places and holidays. World cultures and traditions are fascinating.

Grandma's Naïve Painting - Inspiration for hard times

a Country Wedding - Moses painting
a Country Wedding - Moses painting

How She Painted

She liked to sit quietly and think ...remember and imagine. "Then I'll get an inspiration and start painting; then I'll forget everything, everything except how things used to be and how to paint it ..."

She would sit on an old, battered swivel chair, perching on two large pillows. The Masonite on which she painted would lie flat on an old kitchen table before her. There was no easel. Crowding her in her "studio" were an electric washer and dryer that had overflowed from the kitchen. -

A Story of Yankee Knowhow

Long before she become an art sensation, Anna Mary Robertson Moses lived a life built of making a success out of challenges. She had that Yankee spirit of early America that we think of as "can-do". Her paintings were filled with the story of this part of America's life that we all most love: simple pleasures, hard work, and a good dose of fun. Family and farm, the wide open spaces, and joy in the everyday things of life were her motifs. She was to folk art painting what Laura Ingalls Wilder was to children's literature: a loving look back at a traditional and passing way of life, a personal history shared through appreciative eyes.

I learned a lot from Grandma Moses' life, and she became one of my heroes. Besides the affection I have for the childlike, yet surprisingly telling paintings she produced, I was captured by her grit, no-nonsense approach to life, and optimism. Her life holds some secrets of success for a person of any time or place. We can learn from her Yankee knowhow.

What is Yankee Knowhow?

It is setting your sights on a goal to accomplish, then setting about the hard work of getting the job done. Knowing how to use ingenuity to do a job better, while buckling down and applying elbow grease when necessary are also a part of the recipe. It is a mix of the right attitude and determined hard work. Probably best exemplified by the biographies of some of the people of American history and culture, like Grandma Moses. There is a certain amount of grit and tenacity involved as well.

How to succeed like Grandma Moses? Read on.

A commemorative stamp was issued in her honor in 1969

A commemorative stamp was issued in her honor in 1969
A commemorative stamp was issued in her honor in 1969

Success Can Be Learned - How to succeed like Grandma Moses

There is no magic bullet, but there are keys that people have found to be a pattern in achieving success. You might find some real help for your own solutions in an inspiring book.

"Taking in the Laundry" 1951 Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma) Moses.
"Taking in the Laundry" 1951 Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma) Moses.

Before Fame, Simple Hard Work

Yankee Attitude Forged

She was born Anna Mary Robertson, in 1860. The nation was about to enter the crucible of the Civil War when Anna Mary entered the world of "green meadows and wild woods on a farm in Washington County" in New York. She was the oldest girl,tird born, in a large Scots-Irish family of ten children, and while those days were commonly filled with many chores, she remembered them as happy and carefree. Being industrious and frugal were highly regarded qualities and set the pattern of her life.

She had the normal bit of schooling for girls of her age in that time, but soon was "hired out" to earn her living as household help at age twelve.Although the workload was one we would consider heavy, she felt she was treated kindly, as one of the family. At age 26 Anna Mary had moved on to another position where she met the "hired man", Thomas Salmon Moses. They married and decided to move to the South, to Virginia, where they took up farming.

It was in Virginia that Grandma Moses put her skills to work alongside her husband, and cleverly started her own business making butter that exceeded anything else available thereabouts. She was successful enough to finance two cows, and had the idea to brand her own butter with a butter mold her husband carved for her. That was followed by jams and jellies for sale, before deciding to move back to their New York beginnings. Taking up dairy farming, it was there that Grandma Moses engaged in all the routines and pastimes that would later fill her pictures. She had become a successful farm wife, capable of running her own business engined by her skills and talent.

A rare look at her needlework art.
A rare look at her needlework art. | Source

Before The Paintings

Grandma Moses embroidered art

Always keeping busy with farm chores, housework, and raising her children, it was no different as she got older and was widowed. Yet her stories tell of good humored fun which embroidered her life. She took up making literally embroidered pictures, of little landscapes, until her sister suggested painting instead. She approached painting with her same desire to keep busy and her career was born. It took only the interest of a traveler through the town of Hoosick Falls, where Grandma Moses had put her pictures on display in a store window. Thus began what became an estimated more than 1600 canvases of paintings that she started out selling for two and three dollars each (or three to five depending on who tells the story), but ended up now sold for tens of thousands.

Grandma Moses' Secret Recipe For Success

Grandma Moses painting in the field
Grandma Moses painting in the field

The Right Time For Folk Art

Grandma Moses, At Seventy, Begins As An Artist

Grandma Moses was always self taught and had a sense of what she thought were "pretty pictures". Her style was just what the public wanted to see when her naïve, but colorful and narrative paintings were revealed along with an appealing background of a simple "farm wife's" creativity. Old fashioned tasks of corn husking, maple sugaring off for syrup, making quilts, and candle making were represented in her works and harked back to simpler times and to American virtues of diligent work in agricultural community.

Grandma Moses also embodied the character of no nonsense Yankee ingenuity, able to use "Scotch thrift" to make something out of nothing, and put the best face on the circumstances of life. She was also able to transfer those sentiments through her painting.

Her subject matter was of the life she had known, but many of her works ( especially at first) borrowed from illustrations in books and Currier and Ives prints. These were used as inspiration, but her style and completed paintings were wholly her own. Often artists take elements from such diverse things as perspective, symbolic objects, or common scenes in everyday life for their compositions; it is how they put them together and their original style that sets an artist apart.

"Moses gathered her sources for the vignettes and figural groupings from popular media, such as magazine illustrations, greeting cards, and advertisements. She traced the contours of figures and buildings and incorporated them into her compositions, carefully saving the clippings for future use." ~ American Art

Using oil paints she usually painted on Masonite board. (My father used to use that for projects when I was a child, it is a brown colored pressed wood board, not very thick with a shiny side and a rough corrugated one, it is stiff, but not as heavy or strong as a slab of wood.) She usually cut the boards to a size of 2x3 feet. She also made some small paintings on dried tree mushrooms, as well as a some on ceramic tile.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

Her art became hugely popular, and found many commercial applications from greeting cards to fabrics.

The Riverdale Fabric Co., active from 1950 to 1967, was given permission to market drapery fabric designs with exact replicas of her paintings. Many enterprising people framed that fabric and made framed "wall art" from the fabrics.

Example of her painting interpreted in fabric of the 1950s
Example of her painting interpreted in fabric of the 1950s

Think About It

Grandma Moses was "discovered" by Louis Caldor, an art collector on vacation from New York City. What would have happened if she had never had her paintings in that drugstore window?

Life Magazine cover 1960
Life Magazine cover 1960
Time Magazine cover 1953
Time Magazine cover 1953

Tips for Success that You Can Use

  • Grandma Moses made the best of her opportunities and did not complain
  • She showed entrepreneurial spirit and grasped her opportunities to use her talents
  • She remained cheerful and showed gratefulness for those in her life
  • She was diligent, industrious, and frugal -lessons she learned early in life
  • She remained true to herself and her sense of what she liked and valued
  • She took pride in her work


Grandma Moses in the 21st Century - Learn more about the art of Grandma Moses

An interesting look into the art of Grandma Moses with commentary on its style and significance, with many color plates.

Grandma Moses: in the 21st Century
Grandma Moses: in the 21st Century

What sets apart a naive painting that is considered fine art from just any old painting someone might make? A book of commentary, and examples of Grandma Moses' paintings provide an education.


Seth Godin and His Great Ideas

" .... many of us fear too much momentum. We look at a project launch or a job or another new commitment as something that might get out of control.


Deep down, this potential for an overwhelming response alerts the lizard brain and we hold back. We're afraid of being part of something that feels like it might be too big for us.

Hint: it probably isn't."

wisdom from Seth Godin


Open your eyes to what can be done, don't focus on what can't.

Anna Mary Robertson at age 15
Anna Mary Robertson at age 15

Seth Godin's Thoughts on Success and Grandma Moses

She illustrates his lessons for success

Seth Godin wrote a summary of the hierarchy of success.

How did Grandma Moses illustrate his 6 points?

Pointing out that the six points are often taken out of order, Seth gives the sequence this way:

1. Attitude

2. Approach

3. Goals

4. Strategy

5. Tactics

6. Execution

What can Grandma teach you about this?

She can teach you a lot about attitude. Grandma Moses had a "can do" attitude that made the best of things and didn't waste time moping about disappointments. She continually put that attitude to work for herself when moving to different parts of the country, raising her family, and becoming a great success in the hardboiled world of art. She looked at the bright side of her opportunities.

Grandma's approach to her work was pragmatic. She was practical and she had a good grasp of what she could capitalize on. Long before her art career, she looked around her community and turned her dissatisfaction with the quality of the local butter into a home industry that made it better. Her style was to find a way to meet a need with her arsenal of talents and go to work producing something that gave her pride to produce.

Her goals were simple and true to her values. Grandma didn't aim to become a great artist, she was not trying to become a V.I.P. Those were side benefits to her goals of making the most of her time and talents and keeping busy. She took advantage of opportunities to supplement her family's income, obviously viewing herself as a valued partner in building her family and contributing to those around her.

Grandma Moses had a flexible strategy to use what was at hand and make the best of it. She decided to paint, in her own words, when it seemed easier to paint a picture to give to her mailman then to "slave over a hot stove to bake a cake". One of her early works was a painting she did on a fireboard for her parlor after running out of wallpaper which she would have liked to use to cover it.

"If I didn't start painting, I would have raised chickens."

Grandma's tactics were geared to being faithful to expectations, and true to her Yankee values. When promising a specific number of paintings and finding she was one short, Grandma Moses simply divided a larger painting in half. She valued her promise to the buyer higher than her estimation of her production...even if the work was her own created art. Maybe that seems like a misplaced value and a destructive tactic, but it exemplifies her view of doing the best with what she had and fulfilling the needs of a customer.

Her life dictated the execution of her art. She had lived through the early times of America's most optimistic sense of where it was going, a hardworking, frugal, entrepreneurial America. Grandma Moses executed her work in just that spirit, the spirit of the age in which she had lived. She worked hard, and produced many paintings, she saw her work produced in many transformations from fabric to greeting cards. Grandma agreed to have her works disseminated throughout everyday America, just like you would expect from an icon of the American housewife of a time gone by, one of our "Grandmas".

Create Your Own Art Business


Can I Be The Next Grandma Moses?

Make Your Own Art Posters At Zazzle

Maybe you can. Today there are so many opportunities to have your artwork noticed. An easy way to market and sell your art is Zazzle, or Etsy -if you want to sell the original pieces.

Who knows? You might become a great commercial success! Like Grandma Moses did.

Want to start creating something at Zazzle? It is easy, open an account on their site, for free.

"Let Me Help" by Grandma Moses

Picture This - A success story

Make Your Own...

Positive Character Qualities Examined

Art Supplies - to bring out your inner Grandma Moses

You might find as much enjoyment in creating pictures as Grandma did, and maybe uncover a talent! But you need some art supplies, so here is a selection to get started.

More Lessons in Success

One of the reasons Grandma Moses became so famous and successful as an artist was that her optimism and portrayal of the sunny side of life was just what the nation needed after the trials of a Depression and World War. She was a magnifier of all that Americans wanted to remember of what was good in life and about themselves.

Never underestimate the power and attraction of an optimistic and intrepid view of life. People instinctively know they need such encouragement and gravitate towards those who honestly exemplify it.

Grandma Moses Stories - in her own words

Grandma Moses Early Days
Grandma Moses Early Days

Grandma's Opinion

Painting's not important. The important thing is keeping busy.

What She Had To Say About Her Life

Grandma Moses Quotations:

Born "back in the green meadows and wild woods on a farm in Washington County. Those were my happy days, free from care or worry, helping Mother, rocking sister's cradle, taking sewing lessons, from Mother, sporting with my brothers, making rafts to float over the mill pond, roaming the wild woods, gathering flowers, and building air castles."

"Once Grandma Robertson came, and she brought some tissue paper, green and pink and those colors. Oh, I was rich when I got that! Grandma was a wonderful good woman bringing me that!"

"When I went to school, the teacher would give us maps to draw, and I would make the mountains in my own way. The teacher liked them, and would ask if he might keep them."

Her view on her marriage, believing "that we were a team and I had to do as much as my husband did, not like some girls, when they sit down, and then somebody has to throw sugar at them."

"I have written my life in small sketches, a little today, a little yesterday...I look back on my life a good day's work, it was done and I feel satisfied with it. I made the best out of what life offered."

"What a strange thing is memory, and hope; one looks backward, the other forward; one is of today, other of tomorrow. Memory is history recorded in our brain, memory is a painter, it paints pictures of the past and of the day."

Old Time Quilting Bee

America in Bygone Times - Grandma pictured it affectionately

American Themes Of Hard Work, Simpler Times

Themes In Her Art

Thanksgiving was a holiday unique to American history, captured within her paintings with the subject of "Catching The Turkey".

Few people now understand that a successful hunter and farmer meant the difference between surviving or not during the harsh conditions of Early America. Her paintings of the past caught the once common need to go "from farm to table" all in one's own backyard.

In Grandma Moses time, they looked back sentimentally to rural plenty of a settled America. Celebrations were of that state of plenty. The time of her youth.

This was perhaps the golden age of American agricultural communities and small towns. Horatio Alger stories, which found real life examples.

For Grandma Moses, life was indeed a satisfying one, full of the fruits of "keeping busy", building a home, a family, and her business, whether it was selling apples, butter or artwork.

See The Real Grandma Moses Circa 1950

Give Your Thoughts - Did Grandma Moses inspire you? How about Seth Godin?

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    • profile image

      Maria Barrow 

      11 months ago

      She inspired me in many was helped me to see how to u my negative space, more blending colors and etc. I do Mini canvases and i wanted to compare so i could earn more.

    • Ilonagarden profile imageAUTHOR

      Ilona E 

      5 years ago from Ohio

      @RuthieDenise: I am so glad I could relay more info about her- she really was a remarkable woman.

    • blestman lm profile image

      blestman lm 

      5 years ago

      This is an intriquinging lens. Very informational and entertaining. Thanks!

    • RuthieDenise profile image


      6 years ago

      Hi, what an interesting lens. I love the information about grandma Moses. I had heard about her but really did not know much information about her.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Hers is a fascinating story.

    • cdevries profile image


      8 years ago

      Very inspiring. I love the story about cutting a painting in half in order to make up the promised number!

    • Ilonagarden profile imageAUTHOR

      Ilona E 

      8 years ago from Ohio

      @NoYouAreNot: actually I think it is my own interpretation of their words as they impressed me. I get the "gist" of a message and distill it for myself. But it is just plain common sense, really.

    • Ilonagarden profile imageAUTHOR

      Ilona E 

      8 years ago from Ohio

      @Diana Wenzel: so glad you enjoyed the lens- I enjoyed making it!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      8 years ago from Colorado

      Really enjoyed this lens. I've had some of her art, but did not really know much at all about Grandma Moses. Always loved that she began painting at 70. That is inspiring in itself. Very interesting woman. Thanks for the feature.

    • Ilonagarden profile imageAUTHOR

      Ilona E 

      8 years ago from Ohio

      @NoYouAreNot: It was my interpretation of her message, one I am just now beginning to understand and take for my own. Grandma is one of my heroes.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      "Open your eyes to what can be done, don't focus on what can't." Who told that, Grandma Moses or Seth Godin? It's my motto since a few years ago - when I became sooo tired of seeing people focusing on what "can't be done."

      It's my first acquaintance with Grandma - and I love her! Must seek out more of her paintings too! Thank you.

    • Ilonagarden profile imageAUTHOR

      Ilona E 

      8 years ago from Ohio

      @Spook LM: That is exactly how I felt. I believe we can develop it once focused towards that direction :)

    • Spook LM profile image

      Spook LM 

      8 years ago

      Fascinating and delightful story. It just goes to show. Wish I had more of her attitude and can do spirit.

    • Ilonagarden profile imageAUTHOR

      Ilona E 

      8 years ago from Ohio

      @editionh: She is not as widely known today and her naïve style is not in vogue, but I hope more will appreciate her simple,joyous style.

      Thanks for your time in leaving a remark :)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Great lens with an incredible story, I had not heard about the lady before!

    • Ilonagarden profile imageAUTHOR

      Ilona E 

      8 years ago from Ohio

      @PrettyWorld: Thank you {{pretty world]} and it was motivating to me to get a first comment! I appreciate it so much. I have found Grandma Moses to be someone I started to really admire- and I will add some of the reasons to the lens as time goes on.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I like the "Her Secrets" section a lot. Very motivating.


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