Quick Art History – Grandma Moses

I tell my students they need to be able to name a few artists when asked and should also know a thing or two about them. If nothing else, it comes in handy when playing Jeopardy (and assures people that you have a little “culture”). I’m calling this feature “Quick Art History” where I’ll give you the important points of an artist’s work and life. You’ll surely dazzle your friends at the next dinner party. Art historians may cringe at my pedestrian treatment, but I do it for the people.

Quick Art History

Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses lived from 1860 to 1961. She was born in upstate New York into a large farming family. She grew up on the farm and continued agrarian living into marriage and parenthood. Selfless and scrappy, she bought her family a cow with her own savings and churned butter for supplemental income during tough times. At the age of 72 Grandma Moses took up embroidery and would give away her creations that she dubbed “worsted” pictures.


After just a few years, her arthritis made it difficult for her to embroider. Her daughter suggested she take up painting… at age 76. She painted casually and painted intently and gave away much of her work. Most of it was bright, honest, and direct. As someone who had lived a complete life and only painted as a personal hobby, Moses felt neither a need to evolve into something nor a desire to make a critical statement with her “work.”

pull boys

Many paintings ended up in a local pharmacy window gathering dust until they caught the eye of a New York City collector who had a propensity for seeking out native artistic “finds.” He bought all of her paintings in the store window, took them back to NYC, and made the rounds to museums and galleries in hopes of making Grandma Moses famous. Collectors and curators liked the paintings but were turned off by her age.

country wedding

It wasn’t until 1940 that her paintings made their public debut. The show was titled “What a Farmwife Painted,” thinking that the artist’s name, completely unknown, did not merit attention. A New York department store reassembled her show for a Thanksgiving Festival and invited Grandma Moses to speak. The NYC press was charmed by her humility and overall precious personality and she became a superstar, shortly thereafter featured on the cover of Time and Life magazines (among many other awards, president meetings, exhibitions, etc). Her passing at the age of 101 was front page news across America and much of Europe.

the old bridge

Grandma Moses is an example of continued perseverance, lifelong learning, and doing what you enjoy for enjoyment’s sake. She painted without self-consciousness or egotism. It’s okay to pursue things you don’t have any expectations for. And it’s never too late to start. Grandma Moses is not included in a lot of survey art history classes but her story is important to any creative. Now get to it already! (bio reference)

time cover

“I didn’t have an opportunity to study art….but if a thing seems right to me, I do it.  Art is like the Bible.  Everyone reads the Bible and has a different opinion.  Everyone looks at pictures and has a different opinion, so I go on my own.  I love bright colors so I use bright colors.  I don’t know much about perspective and things like that.  But I paint because I like to and I know what I want to paint.” (source)

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1 Comment

  • Beautifully put! I feel like as an “artist” there is a lot of expctation (self-imposed) to only try/do/get into/learn things I know I can excel at. What a nice reminder that really all of it should because we enjoy it. And that sometimes, that is reason enough to do it.

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