Look at This: Grandma Moses Day

The vivid color, artistic realism and nostalgia for a simpler world that her paintings evoke have caused many art fans to say, "Look at this!" Grandma Moses Day celebrates the life and work of one of America's most loved "primitive" artists on September 7, her birthday.

Her life

Anna Mary Robertson, who would become famous as Grandma Moses, was one of 10 children. She began working as a hired girl when she was 12 and received little education. In her 20s she married a hired hand, Thomas Salmon Moses, from the farm where she worked. They toiled together on rented land for years until they were able to buy their own farm in New York State.

She gave birth to 10 children, but five died in infancy. She became the grandmother of nine, though, and great grandmother to at least 17.

As a middle-aged widow, she began creating pictures in embroidery. At 76 she switched to painting because it was easier on her arthritic hands than pushing a needle through cloth.

In 1937, a collector driving through her small town noticed some of her paintings in a drugstore window. He bought every one and then found her home and bought 10 more.

Soon, her works were exhibited at the New York Museum of Art. She became a celebrity, appearing on talk shows and visiting the White House, where President Harry Truman played the piano for her. She was celebrated nearly as much for her remarkable life story and her forthright nature as for her work.

In spite of her fame, she never changed her way of life. She remained cheerful, spry and productive all her life, continuing to paint almost every day until her death in 1961 at the age of 101.

Her work

Her paintings are nostalgic and evocative, recalling events from farm life with a sharp sense of the season, the weather and the work at hand. Many tell holiday stories, such as bringing home the Christmas tree or dressing up for Halloween.

Some show workers making maple syrup, husking corn or finishing a quilt. Horses appear in many of her scenes. One depicts two riders together on one horse watching black horses run free.

Her paintings are not three dimensional, and most are without shadows. The laws of perspective that give the illusion of depth to the flat surface of paintings are never applied in her artwork. Yet her paintings are filled with realism, evoking the genuine feeling of the life she knew.

She learned to paint at least partly by copying the brush strokes of Currier and Ives prints, just as classically trained painters learned by copying noted works in museums, and she taught herself to mix colors.

Her last painting

The last painting she completed was Rainbow. It shows a farmstead in fall with the fields green and gold. Under sheltering trees, the farmstead is full of workers and livestock. Piles of pumpkins mark the season, and a wagon is piled high with hay. In the background, a church steeple points at heaven, and above, a pink and golden rainbow marks the end of storms.

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