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Anna Mary Robertson "Grandma" Moses

American, 20th century.
Born 1860, New York; died 1961, New York.


Anna Mary Robertson was born on September 7, 1860, in Greenwich, a small community in upstate New York about thirty miles northwest of Bennington, Vermont. Her father, Russell King Robertson, was a farmer and also operated a flax mill. While Anna Mary's five brothers helped their father at the mill and on the farm, she and her four sisters were taught to master a variety of domestic duties. At the tender age of twelve, Anna Mary went to work as a "hired girl" on a neighboring farm, helping a wealthier family with the household chores. She was to pursue this sort of work for the next fifteen years until, at the age of 27, she met a "hired man," Thomas Salmon Moses, whom she married.

Anna Mary Moses, known by then as "Mother Moses" to many of her neighbors, would happily have spent the rest of her life in Virginia, but Thomas was homesick. In 1905, he persuaded his wife to return North. "I don't think a bit has changed since we left," Anna Mary commented, "the gates are hanging on one hinge since I went away." She and Thomas bought a farm in Eagle Bridge, not far from her birthplace. They named it "Mount Nebo"--prophetically, after the Biblical mountain where Moses disappeared. It was on this farm, in 1927, that Thomas Moses died of a heart attack. 

In 1932, Moses went to Bennington to take care of her daughter Anna, who was suffering from tuberculosis. It was Anna who showed her mother a picture, embroidered in yarn, and challenged her to duplicate it. So Anna Mary Robertson Moses began stitching what she called "worsted" pictures and giving them away to anyone who'd have them. When Moses complained that arthritis made it hard for her to hold a needle, her sister Celestia suggested she paint instead. In this casual manner, the career of Grandma Moses began.

Anna Mary Robertson Moses made her public debut at the Galerie St. Etienne in October 1940. Otto Kallir had titled the exhibition "What a Farmwife Painted," thinking that the artist's name, completely unknown, did not merit attention. It was only some months later that a journalist, interviewing friends in Eagle Bridge, came upon and then popularized the local nickname "Grandma Moses."

In 1944, frustrated by the seasonal nature of her tourist-oriented business and by the difficulty collecting payment from some of her customers, she agreed to be represented exclusively by the Galerie St. Etienne and the American British Art Center, whose director, Ala Story, had also become a steady buyer of Moses' work. The events that established Moses as a national and then international celebrity followed in quick succession. Kallir and Story immediately launched a series of traveling exhibitions that would, over the ensuing two decades, bring Moses' work to more than thirty American states and ten European nations. In 1946, Kallir edited the first monograph on the artist, Grandma Moses: American Primitive, and oversaw the licensing of the first Moses Christmas cards. In 1949, Moses traveled to Washington to receive a special award from President Truman. The next year, a documentary film on her life, photographed by Erica Anderson, directed by Jerome Hill, and with narration by Archibald MacLeish, was nominated for an Academy Award. Her autobiography, My Life's History, was published in 1952.

The rags-to-riches saga of the elderly painter captured the American imagination. Facing the harsh realities of the Cold-War era, the public took heart in a real-life tale that seemed to prove the old adage, "it's never too late." The media seemingly never tired of repeating Moses' fairy-tale story. In 1953, she was featured on the cover of Time Magazine; in 1960, Life sent noted photographer Cornell Capa to do a cover story on the artist's 100th birthday. That birthday--declared "Grandma Moses Day" by New York's governor, Nelson Rockefeller--was celebrated almost like a holiday in the nation's press. The fanfare was repeated the following year, when Moses turned 101. Everyone rejoiced at the artist's longevity. Grandma Moses passed away several months after her 101st birthday, on December 13, 1961. Her death was front page news all over America and throughout much of Europe.

- Courtesy of Galerie St. Etienne


Selected Exhibitions

2013, Recent Acquisitions, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

2013, Recent Acquisitions: And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

2012, The Ins and Outs of Self-Taught Art: Reflections on a Shifting Field, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

2011, Self-Taught Painters in American 1800-1950: Revisiting the Tradition, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

2009, They Taught Themselves: American Self-Taught Painters Between the World Wars, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

2008, Transforming Reality: Pattern and Design in Modern and Self-Taught Art, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1996, Breaking All The Rules: Art in Transition, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1992, Naive Visions/Art Nouveau and Expressionism/Sue Coe: The Road to the White House, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1987, Folk Art of This Century, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1939, Contemporary Unknown American Painters, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Selected Solo Exhibitions

2010, Seventy Years Grandma Moses: A Loan Exhibition Celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Artist's "Discovery", Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

2002, Grandma Moses: Reflections of America, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1990, Grandma Moses, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1960, My Life's History, IBM Gallery, NY; Milwaukee, Washington DC, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge, Seattle, Laguna Beach, Fort Worth, Winnipeg

1949, Paintings by Grandma Moses, Phillips Collection, Washington

1944, New Paintings by Grandma Moses: The Senior of the American Primitives, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1944, Grandma Moses, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

1940, What a Farm Wife Painted: Works by Mrs. Anna Mary Moses, Galerie Saint Etienne, New York

Selected Collections

Galerie St. Etienne, New York
Hammer Galleries, New York

Selected Bibliography

Kallir, Jane, The Essential Grandma Moses, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2001.

Marling, Karal Ann, Designs in the Heart: The Homemade Art of Grandma Moses, Massachusetts, 1996.

Biracree, Tom, Grandma Moses: Painter, New York, 1989.

Kallir, Jane, Grandma Moses: The Artist Behind the Myth, New York, 1982.

Kallir, Otto, Grandma Moses: My Life's History, New York, 1952

Kallir, Otto, Grandma Moses: American Primitive, New York, 1947.

Janis, Sydney, They Taught Themselves: American Painters of the 20th Century, New York, 1942.

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