Grandma Moses

Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961) was probably America's best-known primitive painter.

Anna Mary Robertson was born in Greenwich, N.Y., on Sept. 7, 1860, one of 10 children of a farmer. At 12 she began earning her living as a hired girl. In 1887 she married a farm worker, Thomas S. Moses, and the couple settled on a farm in Virginia. They had 10 children, 5 of whom died at birth. In 1907 the family moved to Eagle Bridge, N.Y., where Grandma Moses spent the rest of her life. She died on Dec. 13, 1961.

While living on the farm, Grandma Moses had embroidered pictures in yarn. At the age of 76, because of arthritis, she gave up embroidery and began to paint. Her early work was usually based on scenes she found in illustrated books and on Currier and lves prints. Her first one-woman show was held in New York City in 1940 and immediately catapulted her to fame. Her second one-woman show, also in New York, came 2 years later, and in the intervening time her colors had become more discreet and her handling of space more assured. By 1943 there was an overwhelming demand for her pictures, partially because her homespun, country scenes evoked much nostalgia.

Most of Grandma Moses' paintings were done on pieces of strong cardboard, 24 by 30 inches or less. She habitually portrayed happy bucolic scenes, sometimes depicting herself as a child. She also painted a number of history pictures, usually dealing with her ancestors, one of whom built the first wagon to run on the Cambridge Pike. In some works figures are dressed in 18th-century costumes, as people might have dressed in the country. Certain color schemes correspond to the various seasons: white for winter, light green for spring, deep green for summer, and brown for autumn. Among her most popular paintings are The Old Oaken Bucket, Over the River to Grandma's House, Sugaring Off, and Catching the Turkey.

Grandma Moses worked from memory, portraying a way of life she knew intimately. The people in her paintings are actively engaged in farm tasks, and, although individualized, are part of the established order of seasonal patterns. In most paintings the landscape is shown in a panoramic sweep and was completed before the tiny figures were put in.

Technically the work of primitive painters is distinguished by a conceptual rather than a visual approach to painting. This involves, too, a naiveté of handling based on a totally linear format, with atmospheric perspective, cast shadows, and, frequently, modeling eliminated. The strength of primitive painting lies in the feeling for pattern and the charm of the mood that is projected. In Grandma Moses' paintings the spectator comes to feel a joyous acceptance of existence. In McDonnel's Farm (1943), for example, a group of children are shown in a circular dance at the right, while all the other figures are busily engaged in farm tasks: one man loads the haywagon, another harvests, another cuts the grass with a scythe. In her paintings there is no despair, unhappiness, or aging, yet this unrealistic view of existence is presented with remarkable conviction.

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Further Reading on Grandma Moses

Grandma Moses' My Life's History (1952), edited by Otto Kallir, who tape-recorded her account of her life in 1949, is dull and prosaic, and the quality of the illustrations is poor. Grandma Moses, American Primitive (1946), edited by Kallir, contains biographical extracts and facsimiles of Grandma Moses' handwritten notes used as commentaries for the illustrations; it contains little analysis of the paintings.