Grandma Moses

American Icons, People
on June 25, 2006

Her name was Anna Mary Robertson Moses, but the nation knew her as Grandma. She didn't start painting until age 77, but she lived to become one of America's most popular artists.

Grandma Moses (1860-1961) left behind an evocative record of rural America in a simpler era. She grew up during the Civil War on a farm in upstate New York, married and raised five children. As a widow and grandmother, she began to paint her memories of farm life—Thanksgiving dinners, maple sugaring and winter sleigh rides. In 1939, an art collector discovered her paintings in a drugstore window. Before long, the notion of the "painting grandma" captured the public's imagination, and her images were appearing on greeting cards, lamps, drapes and many other household products. She painted more than 1,600 works before her death at 101.
To learn more about this captivating and spirited lady, American Profile interviewed Karal Ann Marling, whose new book, Designs on the Heart: The Homemade Art of Grandma Moses, provides a portrait of the painter in the context of her time.

AP: Why take a fresh look at Grandma Moses in the 21st century?
KAM: Some critics have done her the disservice of shunting her into the category of "primitive" artist or pop culture icon. But Grandma Moses first became popular in the 1940s and 1950s because her work represented the values our soldiers were fighting for and offered reassurance during the anxious period of the Cold War. Today, we are again looking for order in an increasingly disordered world. Grandma Moses and her work evoke some of the bedrock American values: independence, self-confidence, family, simplicity and tradition.

AP: What did you learn about her that surprised you?
KAM: Her character. I had known about her work, but I didn't understand what a gallant soul she was. Here was a woman who went to work at age 12, who toiled hard all her life, who made the most of the little schooling she had, who sewed her own clothes and who was still active at 101—she was a truly admirable person. Her attitude toward money is especially refreshing today. Having come out a rural economy where cash didn't mean much, she never paid it much mind. She would deprecate the monetary value of her paintings; she was proud of them simply as paintings.

AP: Does Grandma Moses have something to say to baby boomers?
KAM: Certainly, she could serve as the role model of someone who stayed active all her life. She was always full of curiosity and willing to try something new. She wasn't the type to retire to Florida. Her mantra was work, and she found in work a source of satisfaction and self-respect. Grandma Moses is a poster girl for living well indefinitely through vigorous mental activity, good humor and strong family ties.

AP: What new perspective will the book offer on this familiar artist?
KAM: It gives a sense of how she fit into the culture of her time. Her work is often seen as being timeless. I wanted to show that the enormous popularity Grandma Moses enjoyed resulted from the fact that her art spoke to people of the period in which she worked. It was a new era of television and tail fins, and though we wanted to gain these things, we didn't want to lose our root values.

AP: You call her "the Nation's Grandma." Why?
KAM: "Grandma" really brought out the fact that her art, her memories, her statements to the press, all were grounded in family. The name was both important and true. It didn't obscure her contribution as an artist. Instead, it put a finger on the essence of what made her special.