Imaging a happy life

Recounting the incredible life of Anna Mary Robertson, the artist who started painting at the age of 76 and gained fame as Grandma Moses

Anna Mary Robertson’s life story had its share of twists and turns. Born into a large farming family — third of 10 children to her parents — Anna transcended her humble background and came to be hailed as a significant artist of her generation.  

A centenarian who was lovingly called Grandma Moses, she scaled many artistic and popularity peaks but always remained modest about her achievements. When she chose to look back on her long life, she said it was just like a good day’s work (which) was done. “I am satisfied with it. I was happy and contented; I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered. And life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.” 

Interestingly, Anna painted her first image when she was 76 years old. She had left home at an early age to work for a neighbourhood family where, besides cleaning and cooking, she also learnt to sew for wealthy families. When she was 27, she married Thomas Salmon Moses with whom she was to have 10 children (half of them did not survive infancy). The couple spent nearly two decades living and working in local farms. To supplement family income, Anna made potato chips and churned butter from milk. Thomas Moses died of a heart attack in 1927, but Anna (then 67) continued to work on the farm. A decade later, she retired and moved to a daughter’s home. 

Always a creative person, Anna began making embroidered pictures of yarn and attractive quilted objects from early 1930s. She pursued it till the age of 76, when making thread-work became painful because of arthritis.

On her sister’s suggestion, she took to painting in that advanced age. Completely self-taught and ‘primitive’, she never stopped painting thereafter. When her right hand began to hurt, she would switch to her left hand and continue painting with undiminished enthusiasm.

For sale

Grandma Moses’s paintings were modestly priced between $3 and $5. Quite by chance, a New York engineer and art collector, Louis J Caldor, happened to see some of them displayed in a shop window. He bought all the paintings immediately, and also began promoting her work with New York art dealers.

In 1939, Grandma Moses was featured in an exhibition of ‘contemporary unknown painters’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This was followed by solo shows in New York and other centres as her artistic career skyrocketed.

By the early 1950s, Grandma Moses paintings had been shown in more than 150 exhibitions. Her work was acquired by famous collectors. Christmas cards which bore her paintings were a great hit; an estimated 48 million Grandma Moses cards had been sold in the US by early 1950s. She was 93 when Time magazine put her on its cover in December 1953. Grandma Moses was named Woman of the Year by several organisations. She received many honorary awards including PhDs.  In May 1969, a six-cent commemorative stamp based on one of her paintings was issued in the United States. On her 100th birthday, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller declared September 7 to be Grandma Moses Day!

Charming scenes

Grandma Moses’s charming paintings essentially portrayed vignettes of a happy and contented life. They were brightly coloured, free-spirited, showed a delight for nature and light-hearted optimism. “The simple realism, nostalgic atmosphere and luminous colour with which Grandma Moses portrayed simple farm life and rural countryside won her a wide following,” observed The New York Times.

“She was able to capture the excitement of winter’s first snow, Thanksgiving preparations, and the new, young green of oncoming spring. Gay colour, action and humour enlivened her portrayals of such simple farm activities as maple sugaring, soap-making, candle-making, haying, berrying and the making of apple butter.”

Amusingly, she is said to have found an innovative way to make her snow scenes sparkle — adding sugar to the white paint!

Grandma Moses painted almost every day, even when she was well into her 90s. She did it for pleasure, “to keep busy and to pass the time away. But I thought no more of it than of doing fancy work.” She had devised her own way of working: “I paint from the top down. From the sky, then the mountains, then the hills, then the houses, then the cattle, and then the people.”

Some critics did, however, feel that she was great with colour but bad with perspective.

Memory and reminiscences played a big role for Grandma, who drew extensively from recollections of a long life as farm child, hired girl and farmer’s wife. “A strange thing is memory, and hope; one looks backward, and the other forward; one is of today, the other of tomorrow. Memory is history recorded in our brain, memory is a painter, it paints pictures of the past and of the day.”

She was clear about what she could paint and what she could not. “Someone has asked me to paint Biblical pictures, and I say no; I’ll not paint something that we know nothing about, might just as well paint something that will happen two thousand years hence.”

On boundaries

In the end, she seemed to be clear of life transcending art. “Painting’s not important. The important thing is keeping busy.”

As a person, Grandma Moses was known to be tiny, lively with mischievous grey eyes and a quick wit. She would charm her visitors while keeping herself calm and cheerful.

Modern observers see Grandma Moses and her art in new light. Jean McMahon Humez, professor of women studies writes: “A homespun feminist who advocated women’s suffrage … Grandma Moses showed in her own life, as well as in her paintings, a passionate need to escape from the domestic confinement of a ‘lady’s’ lot. That she managed largely to do so, first through her farm work and later through her paintings, without giving up her family life, is an impressive achievement, based on her inexhaustible energy, stubbornness, some luck, and a well-developed sense of humour.” 

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