A portrait of the artist as an old woman
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are stronger in the broken places.” — Ernest Hemingway
After the Civil War ended, small farms fell on hard times, and 12-year-olds like Annie Robertson had to leave their families to earn a living. As a nasty wind wrapped itself around her, Annie set out on the 10-mile walk to a neighbor’s home that was interested in hiring her as a housemaid. She was used to the cold, but heavy snow had dropped the night before and her bootprints left tiny marks in the frozen ground. When Annie arrived, she discovered a scene of warmth and merriment. As the jovial couple sat in their easy chairs they smiled at her and asked, “how do you take your tea,” before she could even sit down. Her first words were, “May I please be your housekeeper?
The new family took to the hardworking young pixie as if she was their daughter. The handsome rugs and fine furniture in the home gave Annie a feeling of living in a dollhouse. When they saw her marveling at a Currier and Ives print on the wall, the Whitesides gave her a set of chalks and crayons at Christmastime.
When Annie turned 27, she fell in love and married Thomas Moses, a strapping young “hired man” on the farm, and they moved to the Mount Airy Farm in Virginia. He handled the heavy chores while she baked potato chips and churned butter to supplement their wages, and over time they were able to afford a farm of their own. The Moses’s and their five children moved to Eagle Bridge, a small town in upstate New York.
It was a working-class life, but Annie stayed busy doing housework and, in her spare time, tended to ‘hobbies,’ as she called them, like quilting, knitting, and embroidery. They were not easy times but she found life rewarding in small and large ways.
Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina begins with the first line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It was all too prophetic for the Moses family. Challenges mounted like a late November storm that comes without warning. Her husband died of a sudden heart attack at age 67. The farmhouse where they raised their family burned down just as the Great Depression began. Moses moved in with her daughter when her health suffered from the burden of giving birth to ten children, although only five survived infancy. She developed severe arthritis and could no longer hold an embroidery needle.Her sister Celestia helped by urging her to try painting as it would be easier on sore hands. Then, after it became too painful to hold the brush in the right, she switched to her left hand.
Although she would never call it art, only ‘her hobby,’ painting quickly turned into more than a pastime. She wrote, “I pick up my brushes so people will know how we once lived.” When she told people she hoped to become an artist one day, some rolled their eyes, “of course you do.” Annie Robertson Moses was 78 years old.
But the dream had been in her mind since childhood. As she looked back more than seventy years later, “I was quite small, and I remember my father would get me unlined paper. He liked to see me draw pictures. Moses never had any formal art training. She chose simple childhood memories of New England, verdant landscapes, and outdoorsy scenes of countryfolk at work and play, referring to them as “old-timey.” She would paint when the mood struck, which was often, and said, “I get an inspiration and start painting, and then I’ll forget everything else.” Collectors of Grandma Moses aren’t looking for elements of modern life like telephones and televisions.
Moses was known only locally until an art collector, Louis J. Caldor, saw her paintings in a drug store window in 1938 and bought everything he could get his hands on, including ten more from her Eagle Bridge house for $5 each. By 1939, her fame grew, and three of her paintings were included in New York’s Museum of Modern Art exhibition entitled “Contemporary Unknown American Painters.” She wouldn’t be unknown for long. Moses caught the media’s attention later that year, and because of her age of 77, they called her Grandma Moses, and it stuck. Although she would not have her first solo exhibit until 1940 called “What a Farm Wife Painted,” at Otto Kallir’s Galerie St. Etienne, it was wildly popular, and the surprise was a table laden with samples of her baked goods and preserves.
Grandma Moses painted 1,500 canvasses over three decades, all of them numbered in her small, delicate handwriting on the reverse side, and priced to sell by size at $5 or $10 per painting, the way one buys a 2x4 plank. The math reveals she painted roughly one canvass per week for thirty years. It matches the herculean labors of Egypt’s pyramid masons, although they most certainly didn’t start at age 78. In the end, her art passion paid off. By 2006, Sugaring Off sold for $1.2 million. Grandma Moses would have calculated the price at $5,000 per square inch.
Her work would be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, with name recognition this time, and grace the cover of Hallmark greeting cards and national magazines. When she reached 88, Mademoiselle magazine named her a “Young Woman of the Year.” Norman Rockwell honored her by painting Grandma Moses into the far left edge of Christmas Homecoming for the December cover of The Saturday Evening Post. After her death, Grandma Moses‘s popularity led to “Granny Daisy Moses” in the 1960s comedy television series The Beverly Hillbillies.