Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Rainbow (1860)

Dec 13, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


     Whether Ms. Moses found the sobriquet “Grandma” a term of endearment or an unwelcome reminder of the onslaught of time is a matter of conjecture, but it is a name with which she was inextricably bound. Her life, one supposed to be exempt from Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, was as fanciful as her canvasses. Her biography serves as a testament that one can receive a late-night knock at the door from the hand of fate.   

       Anna Mary was born in Greenwich, New York, to a frugal farming family, one of five daughters and five sons of Russell King Robertson and Margaret nee Shanahan, Anna took immense pride that one of her great-grandfathers fought in the American Revolution and had left a powder horn with the inscription, “Hezekiah King. Ticonderoga. Feb. 24th 1777 Steal not this horn for fear of shame For on it is the owner’s name.” As a child she discovered the beauty of nature when her father took his children for walks, an activity he felt brought them closer to God than services at the Methodist church. What little formal education she received was from a teacher in a one-room country school. She recalled girls did not often go to school in winter, due to the cold and inadequate clothing and consequently many only progressed through the “the Sixth Reader.” Her favorite pastime was to color paper dolls with a tint she made from the juice of grapes and lemons. Her first experience with actual paint was when her father painted their farmhouse and shared what was left over. The precious product enabled her to create what she mispronounced as “lamb-scapes.” Mr. Robertson was encouraging though her mother thought she should spend her time in other ways. Those other ways were on household chores such as making candles, soaps, and dresses-skills she would need in a job as a “hired girl.”

       At age 12 her parents sent her to work as a maid at a larger farm where she met, and fifteen years later married, her employer’s hired hand, Thomas Salmon Moses. She said her husband was “a wonderful man, much better than I am.” With $600 in savings, the young couple rented a farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Anna bore ten children and raised the five who survived birth. She supplemented the family income by making butter and potato chips (a novelty in those times) to sell to neighbors. After 18 years in the South, the Moses family moved north again to Eagle Bridge, New York, where they bought their own dairy farm. The children married and had large families; the grandchildren helped alleviate the passing of an adult daughter and the loss of Thomas that left Anna a 67- year- old widow. With the assistance of son Forrest, she managed to keep her home. To distract herself she turned to embroidery and “worsted pictures” but this hobby ended when she developed debilitating arthritis. Her sister Celestia, remembering how she had loved to paint as a child, suggested a return to her first passion. Anna Mary agreed; she could no longer hold a needle, but she could handle a brush, and she had been too industrious all her life to be idle. She recalled, “I painted for pleasure, to keep busy, and to pass the time away, but I thought no more of it than of doing fancy work.” Looking out the window of her home onto corn and tomato fields that stretched to the Hoosier River, Anna, propped on pillows, sat in a battered swivel chair. Foregoing an easel, she painted on a canvass that rested on her old kitchen table that held jam jars filled with paint. In her “studio” was an electric washer and dryer. In 1935, at age 76, Anna Mary’s career was born.  

      The local county fair organizers finally persuaded Ms. Moses to send some of her pictures to exhibit and she complied, bringing along her canned fruits and jam to sell. While her preserves won prizes, her canvasses attracted scant attention. The owner of a drugstore in the nearby town of Hoosick Falls placed some of her pictures in its window-priced from $3.00 to $5.00, based on size- alongside jars of jam, a gesture that helped soothe her ego. The brightly colored canvasses attracted the attention of Louis Caldor, a New York art collector, who bought them all and drove to the artist’s home and purchased her ten remaining paintings.  In the city he tried to interest gallery owners in the elderly, rural artist; however, they did not share his enthusiasm and shrugged them off as “‘primitive.’” 

      Two years later Caldor presented Mary’s work to Otto Kallir, owner of the Galerie St. Etienne, who had introduced the work of Gustav Klimt to the United States. In 1928 Kallir had been one of Vienna’s most prominent Jewish art dealers who found himself arranging the sale of a painting to history’s most sinister art lover: Adolf Hitler. The dictator wanted Portrait of a Young Lady by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller and Kallir was the unwilling middleman. Denying a painting coveted by the Fuhrer would have been a fatal mistake. Although the heavy eroticism of Klimt was far afield from the pastoral Americana of Moses, Otto took on Anna as his client. He believed that a public mired in the Great Depression and fearful of the rumblings of a World War would embrace a world of innocence. Grandma Moses did all her painting from remembrance of things past. In Wash Day, newly laundered garments flap in the wind so vividly one can almost smell their crispness. The shape of each shirt and towel made the canvass resemble a patchwork quilt. Even the depiction of a threatening blizzard that causes hats to fly away, branches to bend against the onslaught of the wind, fails to elicit a sense of doom. Anna tinged her canvasses with nostalgia of Thanksgiving preparations, the pristine beauty of a snowfall, the arrival of spring, a pigmented, pragmatic poetry. They were as cheery, nostalgic, and commonsensical as Grandma herself.  She said, “I like to paint oldtimy things-something real pretty. Most of them are daydreams, as it were.”

            Under Kallir’s patronage, Anna became an American idol. Her first one-woman show, in 1940, had a title that would precipitate a feminist uproar today - “What a Farm Wife Painted-” proved a runaway success. However, the artist, who had recently celebrated her 80th birthday, was a no-show. She explained October was a busy month on the farm, and, besides, she had already seen the pictures. In a review of the exhibition, the New York Herald Tribune noted that the elderly artist was known locally as “Grandma Moses,” and the name stuck. When Anna finally consented to come to New York in November for a Thanksgiving festival featuring her work at Gimbels Department Store, she drew a sizable crowd who gathered to hear her talk about technique. Instead, she spoke about how she made preserves and concluded by opening her handbag and showing a few samples. The jaded urban public was delighted. She captured the craze for quaint, and the little lady became big business. Kallir brokered a lucrative deal with Hallmark Corporation to have her images reproduced, and they appeared on 16,000,000 of Grandma Christmas cards in 1947, along with reproductions that graced aprons, dishes, and lampshades. The following year the cards debuted in Vienna and in 15 other European cities. Merchandisers used her name to push everything from Wheaties to Old Golds. Behind the blitz was Otto, a master marketer, and the artist became an octogenarian photo-op queen. Dressed in old-fashioned dresses, hair pulled into a no-nonsense bun, she posed with movie stars and politicians and appeared on a television show with Edward R. Murrow where she demonstrated her artistry. Norman Rockwell, a younger practitioner of Americana, became a friend. Anna appeared on the far left edge in his painting Christmas Homecoming, which served as the Saturday Evening Post’s 1948 cover. The zeitgeist of America preferred authentic subjects, as opposed to abstract paintings, and the public lionized the little lady. Anna earned a further niche in pop culture when Granny Clampett of the Beverly Hillbillies was given the name Daisy Moses in homage, Devotees compared Moses to the great self-taught French painter, Henri Rousseau, as well as to Breughel. Until the comparisons, she had never heard of either.

     Further fame arrive in 1939 when Anna had a private showing of her works at the Museum of Modern Art. During World War II, she became a patriotic darling, and as Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas,” she painted White Christmas.” As a goodwill gesture during the Cold War, the United States government sent fifty of her paintings to Europe. At this juncture, her work had appeared in more than 160 exhibitions, and she had the only “Ecole Americane” picture hanging in Paris’s Museum of Modern Art. The artist, patron saint of small-town life, stayed at home. Other honors arrived when Russell Sage College made her an honorary doctor of humane letters.  Her concern was “they didn’t let me keep the cap.” After President Truman presented her with an award, she stated, “I talked with him, and I could not think but that he was one of my own boys.”  General Eisenhower’s card from Europe manifested his admiration, , “For Grandma Moses, a real artist, from a rank amateur.” In 1952, Lillian Gish portrayed Moses on a televised docu-drama based on her autobiography, My Life’s History. One can only imagine Anna’s emotion when she appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1953 at age 93 dressed in a black dress and white-lace collar.

     Even as the years piled up, Anna refused to let age put the brakes on her spirit, and she produced three or four paintings every week. She said she only stopped when she became too tired, “Then I leave it to do something else; when my hand gets tired, it isn’t so stiddy.” When she allowed herself to rest, she watched television Westerns, not for the drama, but because of the horses. Her great fame at an advanced age pleased her because of the people she met, though it troubled her when their numbers proved daunting. A “Do Not Disturb Sign” sign from a hotel room hung outside her front door to ward off the thousands of tourists who besieged the Moses’ homestead. A visitor who got past the printed plaque asked her of what she was most proud, and the answer could not have been more Christian, or more grandmotherly, “I’ve helped some people.” As she wrote at a time when she was enduring infirmity and had outlived all but two of her children, “It was foolish to sleep when there is so much to do all over.”

        Ms. Moses passed away in 1961, at age 101, survived by nine grandchildren and more than thirty great-grandchildren. As with most artists, posthumously her paintings increased in value. . In 2006 her Sugaring Off sold for $1.2 million; in 1969 a 6 cent U.S. postage stamp bore the image of her painting Fourth of July; the original resides in the White House. President Kennedy paid tribute and said Americans mourned the loss of the artist who had restored a primitive perception of the country’s past. However, the most fitting epitaph came from her autobiography, “I look back on my life like a good day’s work, it was done, and I feel 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.”

      While naysayers criticized Anna’s creations as primitive, this quality held the key to her timeless appeal. It was a secret Pablo Picasso had understood, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Grandma’s final work, created just before her death, was aptly entitled Rainbow.