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If you’ve ever felt it was too late to pursue your life’s passion, consider the story of Anna Mary Robertson Moses. The American folk artist, commonly known as Grandma Moses, had enjoyed painting as a hobby throughout her life, but she didn’t launch her career until she reached the tender age of 78.
Born in Greenwich, NY in 1860, Anna was one of 10 children. When she was 12, she left home to work on a neighboring farm. While there, she learned to sew, cook, and clean house. Those skills served her well, as she married Thomas Moses when she was 27. They lived on a farm in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley. She and Thomas had 10 children, although only five survived into adulthood. Anna earned extra money for her family, making potato chips, and butter which she churned from the milk of a cow she’d bought with her own savings. She often sent her fruit and jams to the country fair.
For many years, Anna Moses lived a rural, agricultural life that would later become the subject of her paintings. Her first known work was painted in 1918, a fireboard in their home’s parlor. It was meant to be purely decorative, and not intended to be the beginning of a career. She later painted images on tables, and for friends. She didn’t plan to reap any financial gain from these pieces. But life took an unexpected turn.
Anna’s husband died of a heart attack in 1927 and she took to painting as a way to escape her grief. She enjoyed doing embroidery, but arthritis made it difficult for her to hold a needle. One of her sisters suggested she try her hand at painting. She was fond of landscapes, and enjoyed the styles of Currier & Ives, as well as Norman Rockwell. Completely self-taught, Anna Moses didn’t receive her first set of professional paints and canvases until an art collector discovered her work in 1938. He happened to be passing through town on a business trip, and saw her paintings collecting dust in a drugstore window. Impressed by her style, the collector not only sent her painting supplies, but arranged to have some of her work exhibited. Eventually, she gains the attention of a gallery and Gimbels department store. Soon, her paintings were being collected by celebrities like Cole Porter, and more exhibits were arranged.
In 1946, the year she turned 86, Grandma Moses’ works were turned into greeting cards, gaining a national audience. Eventually, her work would be reproduced on prints, fabrics, and dishware. In 1956, she created a specially commissioned painting for President Eisenhower. On the occasion of her 100th birthday, she danced a jig with her doctor.
Her most famous works include The Sugaring Off, The Old Checkered House, and Apple Butter Making. Sometimes noted as Primitive, her work depicted the everyday events of country life. We see the simpler times and family values in her works like The Quilting Bee, Catching the Thanksgiving Turkey, and Christmas at Home.
She died in New York in 1961, living to the age of 101. Her lengthy life was as rich and as colorful as her paintings, and is echoed in her quote, “I look back on my life like a good day’s work. It was done and I am satisfied with it.”