To conclude Women’s History Month, we have one more forgotten woman to re-acquaint ourselves with: Anna Mary Robertson Moses. Readers may not recognize this accomplished artist by her formal name, but if I share her nickname, “Grandma Moses”, many might recall this sprightly American folk painter whose artwork was popularized during the mid-twentieth century.
Grandma Moses, a self-proclaimed moniker when she had grandchildren, briefly dabbled in the arts before her husband Thomas’s death. It was only when her hand became too arthritic that her sister Celestia suggested that Anna start to paint instead. Anna followed her advice. One statement of hers that is often quoted is that if she hadn’t started painting, she would’ve raised chickens; meaning that painting was something just to keep herself occupied. She gave away her paintings or occasionally sold them to local stores as décor for $5.
By the end of Anna’s career, she had created over 1,000 paintings, become a household name, was associated with advertisements by having her works depicted on products like tiles, dishes, and fabrics, received the Women’s National Press Club Trophy from President Harry Truman, and became an American phenomenon. Her paintings were mostly of memories from her childhood and married life, which were the years most important to her. Typically the paintings showed an expansive landscape with multiples figures in the front, often conducting a task she had done or seen on the farm. Art critics often spoke of her work with disdain, but the American people couldn’t seem to get enough. In a time when people feared atomic bombs and memories of the Great Depression lingered, Grandma Moses depicted a life with which many Americans wanted to identify. Her work was also in great contrast to the then-current art movement known as Cubism (popularized by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso), but still had an air of modernity with her flat figures, which as her work progressed became more abstract.
Anna Mary Robertson Moses died in 1961. In August 2012, Mt. Airy, her home in Augusta County, Virginia, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This Shenandoah home was first constructed around 1840 while under the ownership of Major James Crawford, and was later associated with Anna Moses and her husband Thomas. Mt. Airy was the first house Anna and Thomas owned. They purchased it for $6,000 and lived there from January, 1901 to September, 1902. Anna started creating pictures in the 1930’s from her memories as a farm wife both in Virginia and the New York Hoosick Valley, and it is thought that many of those paintings depicted life at Mt. Airy.
-Allison Powell, Park Ranger