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Grandma Moses: Never Too Late to Start

In case you didn’t know, September 7th is officially recognized as “Grandma Moses Day.” Long considered a household name in both the US and abroad, Grandma Moses was a famous American folk artist who began her career in art at age 76. Not seeking fame, she was “discovered” by an art collector whose perseverance catapulted Moses to success resulting in international acclaim and yes, an official Grandma Moses Day. Her down-home personality won her a special place in the hearts of Americans. Her charming paintings of rural landscapes and country life were executed in a simplistic and naïve style often called “American primitive.”

Grandma Moses was born Anna Mary Robertson on September 7 in 1860 on a family-owned flax mill in upstate New York. One of five daughters in a family of ten children, Anna Mary learned a variety of domestic chores before being hired at age 12 to help with household duties on a neighboring farm. She pursued this type of work until she met Thomas Moses whom she married at the age of 27.

Shortly after their wedding, Anna Mary and Thomas headed south to North Carolina to a job that Thomas had secured. But they never reached North Carolina, deciding instead to stay in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and take over as tenants on a local farm. Anna Mary fell in love with the beautiful valley and participated in the family income by churning butter and making and selling potato ships. Giving birth to ten children, of which only five survived, Moses had her hands full with country life.

Known by many of her neighbors as Mother Moses, Anna Mary settled into her life in Virginia for nearly 20 years. But Thomas was homesick and in 1905, persuaded his wife to return to New York. The couple bought a farm in Eagle Bridge, not far from her birthplace and since her children were all grown by this time, threw herself into work on the farm. In 1932, Anna Mary went a short distance to Bennington, Vermont to care for her daughter Anna, who was suffering from tuberculosis. Anna showed her mother an embroidered picture and challenged her mother to duplicate it. Anna Mary took up the challenge and began a hobby of stitching pictures in this way. When Anna Mary complained of arthritis and the difficulty she was having with embroidery, her sister Celestia suggested painting instead.

So Moses began to paint with oil paints pictures of rural life. Soon she had more paintings than she knew what to do with. Entering the paintings in the country fair, she won no prizes. Then around 1936, she was contacted by the organizer of a women’s exchange in a neighboring town to display some of her paintings in a drugstore window along with other crafts by local women. Moses’ paintings sat unsold in the window for more than a year until a man named Caldor happened upon them. Caldor was by profession a engineer but he had a hobby of seeking out artistic treasures. He bought the paintings in the window and after obtaining the name and address of the artist, set out to meet Moses. At her home, he bought several more paintings and told her of his goal to make her famous, a claim that was viewed with great skepticism and a bit of amusement by Moses.

Caldor made the rounds of galleries but had difficulty interesting anyone in an artist of such advanced years; Moses was 76 years old and might not live long enough to bring in a profit on an investment. It wasn’t until 1940 that Caldor garnered some interest at the Galerie St. Etienne, specializing in modern Austrian artists such as Gustav Klimt and particularly in the work of self-taught painters, in the belief that their work was more pure and more original than the work of trained painters.

So Moses made her public debut at the Galerie St. Etienne in the Fall of 1940 in an exhibition entitled "What a Farmwife Painted." Several months later, a journalist made popular the local nickname of “Grandma Moses” when he heard the name while interviewing friends of Moses. Although the St. Etienne exhibition was successful, it was Moses’ participation in a Thanksgiving Festival organized by Gimbels Department Store in New York that brought her recognition. Moses exhibited her paintings and also gave a public speech on the subject of her jams and preserves. The press fell in love with her. She then exhibited at a number of upstate venues and began to experience a great demand for her artistic souvenirs. Overwhelmed, she agreed to be represented exclusively by the Galerie St. Etienne and the American British Art Center.

A series of traveling exhibitions in the US and Europe over the next two decades established Moses as an international personality. In 1946, the book Grandma Moses, American Primitive was published, containing handwritten biographical notes by Moses as well as commentaries on her paintings. In addition, Moses licensed her paintings to Hallmark for use in a line of Christmas cards. In 1949, Moses received a special award for her accomplishments from President Truman. Shortly thereafter, a documentary film on her life was nominated for an Academy Award and her autobiography, My Life's History, was published. Posters, china dishes, fabrics and other products bore the Grandma Moses motif, making her a household word. In 1960, the artist celebrated her 100th birthday. It was on this birthday that Grandma Moses Day was established by the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller. When Moses passed away shortly after her 101th birthday, she was mourned all over America and much of Europe. Her “rags to riches” story captured the imagination of many and earned her a place in art history.

The Bennington Museum in Bennington, Vermont, holds the largest public collection of Moses paintings in the country, as well as a display of memorabilia associated with Moses artistic endeavors. For more information on the museum, click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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