Grandma Moses: Glitter and Jam

On Sept. 7, 1860, Anna Mary Robertson was born. This baby girl would grow up to be a renowned artist – today, her paintings sell for as much as $1.2 million. But it would take more than 80 years for little Anna to become the world-famous painter Grandma Moses.

Anna Robertson's young life as a farm girl in upstate New York was unremarkable – she received little education and went to work as a housekeeper at age 12. Some years later, she attracted the attention of a hired hand named Thomas Salmon Moses who worked for the same household. They were married in 1887 and settled in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia for 20 years before returning to New York to farm in the town of Eagle Bridge. Anna helped make ends meet by churning butter and making and selling potato chips.

Grandma Moses postage stamp (Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Postal Service)

As the family grew – they had 10 children, though only five would survive infancy – Moses's life as a farm wife continued to follow a traditional path, marked as unusual only by her special love for art and beauty. Even as a girl, she would draw pictures on newsprint, coloring them with fruit juices. She continued this artistry as a young wife, beginning with a bit of creative brilliance while wallpapering the family parlor in 1918. She ran out of the patterned paper before she was able to complete the room, leaving the fireboard (a board that covered the dormant fireplace in warm weather) incomplete. Instead of buying more paper – or giving up – Moses pasted plain white paper to the fireboard and painted a landscape scene on it.

The painting is prized today as her first datable work, and it's displayed at the Bennington Museum in Bennington, Vermont. But back in 1918, it didn’t launch a fabulous art career. It was a pretty addition to her home, but it wasn’t seen by anyone but the family and their visitors. There wasn't much time in the life of a farmer to create art for art's sake, so Moses's life continued as always. Her artistic energy was channeled into kitchen work such as canned fruits and jams, and embroidery – more practical than painting, since needlework can at least adorn a cushion.

As Moses aged, arthritis began to afflict her hands to the point where she could no longer hold a needle comfortably. Embroidery was out of the question, but a paintbrush was easier to wield – so Moses turned once again to painting. This time, an audience for her rustic landscapes and country scenes began to form.

It started small – in fact, Moses's first exhibition yielded pretty much zero interest. At the Cambridge county fair, where she submitted paintings along with her award-winning jams and jellies, none of the paintings garnered much notice – there were no prizes and no sales.

A few years later, a nearby friend, the wife of a druggist, arranged for some of Moses's paintings to be displayed in the drugstore's window. They languished there for a few years, until the right person happened to see them… a collector from New York City named Louis Caldor. He was charmed by her work and swore he could make her famous.

Grandma Moses with her work (Getty Images / Time & Life Pictures / W.Eugene Smith)

Right: Grandma Moses with her work (Getty Images / Time & Life Pictures / W.Eugene Smith)

That was 1938 and Grandma Moses was 78 years old. By 1940 several exhibitions of her art were gaining notice – her first solo show, What a Farm Wife Painted; a large department store show that included both Moses's paintings and her baked goods and jams (and was a lot more successful than that failed county fair); a gallery show in Washington, D.C.

As the world began to take notice of her work, they were charmed by what they saw. As a self-taught artist, Moses is categorized as part of the primitive school or as a folk artist, but that didn’t matter much to the regular folks who saw and loved her work. They also didn’t care that Moses's work included distinctively non-artistic traits like a lack of perspective, a greeting card style… and her love for sprinkling glitter on a snowy scene to make it sparkle. These qualities that may have made her work a little questionable to the art establishment were the same things that captured the hearts of everyone else.

In her 80s as her popularity grew, Grandma Moses didn't slow down – quite the opposite, she painted more than ever. During a career that lasted a little over 20 years, Moses completed more than 1000 paintings. Her fame truly exploded in the 1950s, when she was in her 90s, and her exhibitions broke attendance records worldwide. Not only did the public love her folksy paintings, but they were captivated by her life story as well. If a farm wife could begin painting in her 70s and achieve international fame as she approached her 100th birthday, why couldn't they follow their own dreams, no matter how long they'd been deferred?

If any gallery owners worried that a senior-citizen painter wouldn't live long enough to gain much attention – and a few of them did, in the early days – they were way off. Grandma Moses just kept going strong through her 90s, living to see her photo on the cover of LIFE magazine on her 100th birthday – a day that was also declared "Grandma Moses Day" by New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. But by that time, her life was indeed winding down. She died Dec.13, 1961, at age 101.

Today her legacy is still strong. Her painting Fourth of July hangs in the White House, and she was honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 1969. Her fame endures, and most of her fans would agree with her own assessment of her life and work: “I look back on my life like a good day's work, it was done and I am satisfied with it.”

Written by Linnea Crowther