For the last few blogs I have been looking at the lives of artists who were taken from us at a very young age, and in very sad circumstances. I looked at the lives and works of the French artist Fréderic Bazille and the English painter Brian Hatton both of whom gave up their lives for their country on the battlefield at the age of twenty-nine and in my last two blogs I showcased the life and work of the German Expressionist Paula Modersohn-Becker who died suddenly after giving birth to her first and only child at the young and tender age of thirty-one. The three painters promised so much and we were cruelly robbed of their artistic talents. For my next three blogs I wanted to lift spirits and talk about an artist who did not die young, in fact lived to the age of 101. She is probably far better known in her native America than in the rest of the world. Let me introduce you to Anna Mary Robertson Moses who became better known as Grandma Moses, the most famous of American naive painters. Naive art is defined as art produced in more or less sophisticated societies but lacking or rejecting conventional expertise in representational skills. It is art that is often typified by a childlike simplicity in the subjects it depicts and in its methodology. There is often a lack of perspective, with objects being depicted the same size notwithstanding whether they are in the foreground or background. Again, there is no diminishment in detail or strength of colour between objects in the foreground and the background. There is a simplicity about this type of art and it has become ever more popular.
Anna Mary Robertson was born on September 7th 1860, on a farm in Greenwich, upstate New York. She was the third of ten children born to Russell King Robertson, a flax grower, and Margaret Shannahan. She had a simple and happy early life and she recalled those happy days some eighty-five years later in an autobiographical sketch of her early life which she wrote in 1945:
“…I Anna Mary Robertson was born back in the green meadow and wild woods, on a Farm in washington, Co., in the year of 1860, Sept 7, of Scotch Irish Paternal ancestry. Here I spent my life with mother Father and Sisters and Brothers, those were my Happy days, free from care or worry, helping mother, rocking Sisters cradle taking sewing lessons from mother sporting with my Brothers, making rafts to float over the mill-pond, Roam the wild woods gathering Flowers, and building air castles…”
Her schooling was limited. She attended a one-room schoolhouse with her brothers and sisters. She said that schooling was just confined to three months in the summer and three months in the winter but few young girls went to school in the winter as it was so cold and they did not have enough warm clothing. When she was twelve years of age, she left home and for the next fifteen years she earned a living as a “hired girl”, working at neighbourhood farms. The work was often hard but she recounted how she benefited from the experience:
“….I left home to earn my own living as then was called a hired girl. This was a grand education for me, in cooking, House Keeping, in moralizeing and mingleing with the outside world…”
She spent time living with the Whitesides family who she liked and they looked upon her as one of their own. They were an elderly couple, devout Presbyterians and every Sunday she would drive them to church in their horse and carriage. The wife, who was an invalid, was quite ill and Anna for three years cared for her. When she died she stayed and looked after the husband and his nephew and wife moved in to run the farm. Anna stayed until Mr Whiteside died and after that just drifted away from the neighbourhood still working as a “hired girl”.
In 1887, at the age of 27, she married Thomas Salmon Moses, a farmer by occupation, and the couple left the area for North Carolina, where they were going to run a horse ranch. However they never made it to North Carolina as once they arrived in Staunton Virginnia, they were offered the chance to run a farm. The farm had lost all its coloured workers after the war and people were desperate to employ others to fill their places They accepted the offer and lived there for a year before moving on to live and work on a six hundred acre dairy farm. She wrote about her life there:
“… Here I commenced to make Butter in pound prints and ship to the White Sulphur Springs, W, Va. I also made potato chips, which was a novelty in tho days, this we continued for several years…”
She gave birth to ten children, five of whom died in infancy. In a letter she looked back at that time with the birth and death of her children, writing:
“… Here our ten children were Born and there I left five little graves in that beautiful Shenadoah Valley…”
She, along with her husband and their five surviving children, Winona, Forrest, Lloyd, Anna and Hugh, left Virginia at the end of 1905 and moved north to the hamlet of Eagle Bridge in Rensselaer County, New York State which was not far from her birthplace. The couple bought a farm, which was known locally as Mount Nebo, named after Moses’ biblical resting place and went into the dairy business, selling milk. Over the years one of her daughters, Anna, got married and left home and two of her sons, Forrest and Lloyd, went to live on a farm which they had bought themselves. In 1927 Anna’s husband Thomas died and their youngest son Hugh and his wife Dorothy took over the running of the farm. Anna Mary Moses was then sixty-seven years of age.
You may find it strange that up to this point in my account of Anna’s life I have never mentioned her art. I haven’t mentioned drawing lessons or her desire to be an artist. The reason is quite simple – art never became a serious part of her life although her father, whol liked to draw, would give her and her brothers paper and he would like to watch them all draw pictures and she would often colour her drawings using grape juice or juice from other berries. However with all her work as a “hired girl” and later as a young wife she never had time on her hands to continue with her painting. However, soon after her husband died and she was becoming too fragile to carry on with her housework, she needed something to occupy her time, as she wrote in her autobiographical sketch:
“…Here Jan 15, 1927, my Husband died, my youngest son and wife taking over the farm,
Leaving me unoccupied, I had to do something, so took up painting pictures in worsted, then in oil…”
My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled The Old Hoosick Bridge which Grandma Moses painted in 1947. The reason for featuring this work, although she painted it when she was 87 years of age, was that she had in her early days depicted a similar scene, but as a work of embroidery, which was entitled, The Old Hoosick Bridge, 1818. (above) Initially Anna started making pictures out of worsted wool which she designed herself and were awash with very bright colours. This scene was typical of her early works which were from memories of her early childhood and as a farmer’s wife. The old covered bridges were landmarks in her early days but at the time she painted this picture the bridge had well gone.
In my next blog I will continue with her life story and recall how she got her big “break” as far as her art was concerned.