The Legend of Grandma Moses

The Bennington Museum is home to the largest public collection of paintings by Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961). Better known as Grandma Moses, the artist was catapulted to international fame during the 1940s as the result of her charming, naïvely executed, yet animated paintings of rural America. Her work is a combination of fact-based history and her own memories. As with many of her paintings, The Battle of Bennington depicts a historic event created in the artist’s unique visual style and personal associations. Fought only a few miles from where the artist lived most of her life, the Revolutionary War battle was an event of significant local lore. Moses blended her own artistic touch with facts, so it was not surprising when asked in an interview why the Bennington Battle Monument was in this painting even though it wasn’t built for more than a century after the battle, her response was, “Well, I put the monument in because it looked good, I guess.”

Growing up in rural, upstate New York, in a family that embraced the arts, Moses was surrounded by the decorative, stylized work of self-taught and amateur artists and “popular” art, such as the prints of Currier and Ives. Moses’ own work springs directly from these popular, centuries-old traditions. Popular printed sources served as inspiration for self-taught artists for centuries, and Moses was no exception. It was also common among folk artists of all periods to share their artistic talents with family members and pass along their gift to younger generations. Anna Mary’s own father, Russell King Robertson, was an amateur painter who encouraged his young daughter, and her brothers, to paint. In her autobiography Moses notes, “He liked to see us draw pictures.” Many members of the Moses Family took up painting as both a hobby and a vocation after seeing the success Grandma garnered.

Grandma Moses History
On September 7, 1860, Anna Mary Robertson was born into a farming family in Greenwich, a small upstate New York community just thirty miles from Bennington, Vt.   Her father, Russell King Robertson, was a farmer, operated a flax mill, and was also an amateur painter. At twelve, Anna Mary went to work as a “hired girl” on a neighboring farm. After fifteen years of this type of work, at the age of 27, she met a “hired man,” Thomas Salmon Moses, and they married. Hearing that the South was a land of opportunity, on their wedding day they boarded a train and headed for North Carolina. Their trip was shortened, however, in Staunton, Virginia, where they had stopped for a night.  Here they were persuaded to take over as tenants for a local farm. Anna Mary loved the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley, and they and their children stayed there until 1905 when they returned to New York.  They bought a farm in Eagle Bridge naming it “Mt. Nebo” after the Biblical mountain where Moses disappeared. In 1927, Thomas Moses died of a heart attack on this farm.

Anna Mary Moses did not sit idle as she tended to the work on the farm. In 1932, she went to Bennington to care for her daughter Anna, who was suffering from tuberculosis. It was Anna who challenged her mother to duplicate a yarn-embroidered picture. Anna Mary Robertson Moses began stitching, but when arthritis struck, it became increasingly difficult for Moses to do needlework. Her sister suggested painting instead, which was the very beginning of Grandma Moses’ career. 

In 1936 or ’37, Moses was asked to contribute a painting to a women’s exchange. After setting in the drugstore window for over a year, her painting caught the eye of a New York City collector, Louis Caldor. He enjoyed seeking out native “artistic” finds during his travels, and purchased that one painting from the window, as well as every Moses’ painting the drugstore had. He obtained Moses’ name and address, and went to meet her. For the next few years, Caldor’s attempts to interest museums and galleries in New York with her art were rebuffed.  It was appreciated and admired, but learning of the artist’s age, 88, the dealers felt they could never reap a profit on their investment. Caldor persisted, and in 1939 three of Moses paintings were included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.  Open only to museum members, this show had no immediate impact on Grandma’s career.

In 1940, Caldor visited the Galerie St. Etienne, which had been recently founded by Otto Kallir, a Viennese émigré.  The gallery specialized in modern Austrian masters but Kallir was also interested in the work of self-taught painters because it was believed to be “purer” and “more original” than that of trained painters.  As such an artist, Anna Mary Robertson Moses made her public debut at the Galerie St. Etienne in October 1940. Only garnering modest success, this show was followed by a Thanksgiving festival organized by Gimbels Department Store in which many of Moses’ painting were put on view. “Grandma” traveled to New York, delivered a public talk on jams and preserved fruits, and won over the hardened New York press corps.  The legend of Grandma Moses was finally born.

Moses became a local celebrity.  She had exhibitions at upstate New York venues and was sought out by vacationers who wanted her works as souvenirs. After several years of struggling to manage the seasonal tourist business, she agreed to let Galerie St. Etienne and the American British Art Center act as her exclusive representatives.  These entities launched a series of traveling exhibitions that brought Grandma Moses to more than thirty U.S. states and ten European countries.  Her celebrity status grew both nationally and internationally. What followed was nothing short of a rags-to-riches story of this elderly painter. 

In 1946, Kallir edited the first monograph on the artist, Grandma Moses: American Primitive, and oversaw the licensing of the first Moses Christmas cards. The following year the book was reprinted and the greeting card license taken over by Hallmark. In 1949, Moses received a special award from President Truman, and the following year, a documentary film on her life was nominated for an Academy Award. Her autobiography, My Life’s History, was published in 1952. Traveling exhibitions, books and greeting cards, posters, drapery fabrics, china plates, and more were now enjoyed by people around the world. Grandma was able to broadcast from her home in Eagle Bridge to the larger world, and the rare use of color television allowed her paintings to be shown during her interview with Edward R. Murrow in 1955. As proof of the adage “it’s never too late,” Grandma continued to be featured on the cover of publications like Life and Time magazines.  In 1960, in celebration of her 100th birthday, “Grandma Moses Day” was declared by New York’s governor, Nelson Rockefeller. Yet another celebration took place a year later when she turned 101, but it was during that year that she passed away on December 13, 1961, which became front page news all over America and throughout much of Europe.

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