Grant Wood. Part 2 – American Gothic and sister Nan

Grant Wood, Study for Self-Portrait, 1932,

When Grant Wood spent time in Munich overseeing the production of stained glass for the memorial window for the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids he had time to visit the city’s museums and he was inspired by the artistry of the painters from Netherlands, especially Jan van Eyck and the portraiture of the Renaissance artists.

Man with Pink Carnation by Andrea Solari (c.1495)

Portraiture normally has a plain background so as not to detract from the sitter but often in Renaissance portraits a landscape background was used which would give you some knowledge about the sitter.

Woman with Plant by Grant Wood (1929)

No doubt Grant Wood remembered that type of portraiture when he painted Woman with Plant in 1929. In this work we see a Midwestern woman in country clothes, wearing a cameo broach and an apron bordered with rick-rack stitching. In her hands she holds a plant pot containing a snake plant. She is the epitome of the pioneer woman, and this is a Renaissance-style work with its half-length figure in the foreground and a landscape backdrop and it is the inclusion of a windmill and sheaves of corn which marks it as an American Midwestern depiction. This was actually a portrait of his mother !

Arnold comes of Age (Portrait of Arnold Pyne)

In August 1930 at the Iowa State Fair Grant Wood’s painting entitled Arnold comes of Age which was his portrait of twenty-one year old, Arnold Pyne, his assistant on the Memorial Window project.

Des Moines Tribune-Capital, August 20th 1930

The renowned American journalist and correspondent for the Chicago Tribune from 1925 to 1932, covering Europe, William Shriver, once asked Grant Wood whilst in Paris, why, having witnessed the emerging art styles in Europe in the 1920’s, would his artistic style change. Wood answered by likening himself to the famous American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright, whose 1920 novel, Main Street, satirised the strict conservatism of small-town life. :

“…I am going home to paint those damn cows and barns and barnyards and cornfields and little red schoolhouses… and the women in their aprons and the men in their overalls and store suits… Isn’t that what Sinclair Lewis has done in his writing… Damn it, you can do it in painting too!…”

American Gothic by Grant Wood (1930)

A year after the stained glass window was installed at the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids, Grant Wood completed his iconic painting American Gothic, a painting which many consider to be the most famous painting in American art. So how did all come about?

In the spring of 1930, Grant Wood decided to take a weekend off from his painting and drove the 12o miles from his home in Cedar Rapids, to the home of one of his former student in Eldon, Iowa. The road trip passed through gently rolling patchwork of farmlands of central and south Iowa between the Cedar River to the Des Moines River. On a Sunday morning in early April, Wood came upon the now-famous house. It was known by the local residents as the Dibble House as it was built by Eldon resident, Charles Dibble, a Civil War veteran and livery stable owner in 1882 for his family, which included himself, his wife, and his eight children.

The American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa

The house was built in a style known as Carpenter Gothic, or Rural Gothic, and is a North American architectural style-designation for an application of Gothic Revival architectural detailing and picturesque massing applied to wooden buildings erected by house-carpenters. This terminology is used when the design of lofty architecture of European cathedrals is applied to American frame houses. The Eldon house was a small, simple frame structure and was no different than many houses dotted around Wood’s home in Cedar Rapids. However, it had one unusual feature. On the second storey there was a single gable with an inset narrow Gothic window. The house mesmerised Wood and he began to wonder what type of people lived in such a house, so much so, after driving around the block he knocked on the door and introduced himself to the residents who showed him around the interior. After thanking the young couple he went back to his car, grabbed his paints and made a quick oil sketch of the house.

The Sunday Register, December 1st 1930

After he got back home he told his sister Nan about the house and how it had captivated him. The one aspect of the exceptional house which disappointed him was the fact that the residents were not whom he had envisioned for they were a young couple.  He said to Nan:

“… I’ve decided to do a painting of the kind of people I think should live in that house. I thought about it last night. I have a woman in mind, Nan, but I’m afraid to ask her to pose, because, you know, like all the others, she’ll want me to make her look young and beautiful. And I’m not going to paint her beautiful in this picture. So she’ll be disappointed…”

Of course, we now know that the woman in the painting would be his thirty-one year old sister, Nan, but there lay the problem for Grant, for the woman he intended to paint was going to be an “old maid”. However, even knowing the problem he still asked his sister to pose and he showed her his preliminary oil sketch.

American Gothic painting satirised

There was a long pause before Grant answered his sister’s question.  Finally he addressed his sister asking her, if she was willing, to pose for the picture.  He then had to sell the concept to her as he wanted the “daughter” to have a plain and old-fashioned appearance and her facial expression was to be one of sternness and sombreness. He asked Nan to imagine what it would be like to be under the control of her elderly and authoritarian father. Nan agreed and that afternoon went off to the store to buy some appropriate sombre brown and black clothes for the painting, as she later recalled:

“…. We were supposed to be small-town people. We were really not supposed to be farmers, but just small-town folk. We would own maybe a cow to milk, and we would have a little garden to tend for ourselves. But we’d keep all we grew and not sell anything in the market. Grant and I talked and talked about this. The man in the painting – who was supposed to be my father, would do some tinkering around the house, we decided. We tried to determine what the mother and wife would look like, but we just could not agree on anything. So we decided that the man was a widower. Now, when we talked about this, we tried to imagine what expression would be on the face of the man and his daughter. When we finished talking about this, I posed…”

Nan later remembered the posing for the painting:

“…It was really difficult because Grant was always joking. And both of us would break into laughter, and then we would have to start all over again. It was hard to go from being Grant Wood’s sister and joking with him in the studio to being a farmer’s daughter standing in front of a house. When I was posing and I lost my concentration, Grant would always draw me back to the work at hand by begging, ‘Come on, now, Nan. I’m trying to do your face and I really need you to look sour.’ So I looked sour, the best I could. And so he painted me…”

His depiction of a plain, stern-faced Iowa woman has an everlasting, inscrutable quality and some who saw the painting called her the “American Mona Lisa.”

Grant explained to her that he would paint the house in the background and, standing side by side in front of it would be an elderly man and his daughter and that he intended to approach his sixty-three year old dentist, Byron McKeeby, to pose as the man. Grant had exchanged some of his paintings in lieu of payment for dental work with him and he knew McKeeby liked his work, so he was sure he would pose for the painting.

For Nan, Grant could do no wrong, and she was a constant source of encouragement to her brother. She had no misgivings about posing for the American Gothic painting even though she knew ahead of time it would probably be very unflattering. However, she harboured no resentment towards her brother, once saying:

“…Grant made a personality out of me. I would have had a very drab life without it…”

Some say the pair depicted were husband and wife but Grant’s sister Nan maintained it was father and daughter so that she was not to be classified as a woman who would marry a much older man. Grant, himself, never clarified the status of the pair !

Nan Wood Graham and the painting American Gothic

The stern-looking man was posed by Wood’s Cedar Rapids’ dentist Byron McKeeby. We see McKeeby dressed in a black jacket and collarless shirt and clean denim overalls. In his right hand he holds a three-pronged pitch fork, the prongs of which are echoed in the stitching of his overalls and again in the Gothic window of the house. Although the depiction of the couple looks suitably posed Wood painted the two people separately and his sister and the dentist never stood together in front of the house.

Comments about Nan as the model were often derogatory with one viewer writing that her face “would sour milk”. Other women protested that Nan was poking fun at them with her dour expression.

Nan Wood Graham and Dr. Byron McKeeby

American Gothic was displayed in Cedar Rapids after Wood’s death in 1942. Nan, at that time, Mrs Wood Graham, and Dr. Byron McKeeby were united with each other and the painting for the first time, with their “stretched out long” faces as dour as ever !

Bronze medal winners awarded by Art Institute of Chicago

Grant submitted the painting to the jury for the forty-third annual exhibition of American paintings and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930. The judges dismissed it as a trifling “comic valentine,” but a powerful museum patron urged them to reconsider. The painting was awarded the Norman Wait Harris Bronze Medal, as well as a three-hundred-dollar prize. The painting was bought by the Friends of American Art at the Institute for another three hundred dollars. Newspapers throughout America soon carried articles and reproductions of the painting. Eventually, the picture appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, which caused great consternation with the real Iowa farmers and their wives and they were not amused. To them, the painting looked like a nasty caricature, portraying Midwestern farmers as pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers. However, the painting, which is now housed at the Art Institute of Chicago, is one of the most iconic and recognizable images in American art, and it helped propel Wood to fame and launch the Regionalist movement, of which Wood became the de facto spokesperson.

The sitters for the American Gothic painting (1942)

The highly detailed style of the work and the two unbending figures at the forefront of the depiction were inspired by the Flemish Renaissance art, that Wood would have seen during his European travels between 1920 and 1926. Despite the negative comments that Wood was belittling the Mid-Western folk he actually intended the painting to be an upbeat declaration about rural America and rural American principles. Remember, the year before American Gothic was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago, the country was hit by the great depression and America was facing a major crisis. In the Mid-West there was overproduction in agriculture, as farming techniques improved, and farmers started producing too much food. Coupled with the fact that there was less demand from Europe for food from America because they could grow their own crops. This abundance of crops led to falling prices and thousands of farmers became unemployed after having to sell their farms. Despite this Wood wanted his painting to be a positive statement about rural American values, and for it to become an image of comfort and encouragement at a time of great displacement and disenchantment. For Wood the man and his daughter were symbols of survivors who would battle on through the tough times.

Portrait of Nan (1931)

Grant Woods, as a token of his gratitude, and maybe knowing of the hurtful remarks about his sister’s appearance in the painting, painted a formal portrait of her in 1931. Tripp Evans, a biographer of Grant Wood, wrote:

“…It’s really kind of a love letter from Grant to his sister. He adored Nan. And it’s a painting that he felt very close to as well, one of very few of his mature paintings that he kept for himself…”

In the painting, Portrait of Nan, he depicts her in fashionably marcelled hair style. The Marcelled hair style was a popular hairstyle of the 1920’s and 1930’s that featured unique waves and styling. Marcel Waves are a deep waved hairstyle reminiscent of American actress and bombshell Jean Harlow. Nan is shown wearing a patent-leather belt and a sleeveless polka-dot blouse. She is holding a plum in her left hand whilst the right-hand cups a small chicken. Nan is depicted as a chic-looking and chick-holding modern woman ! Grant Wood bought the little chick at a dime store but it proved to be an unwilling “sitter” for him. His sister Nan recalls the problems her brother had with the chick:

“…Grant kept long hours when he was on a painting spell and would work well into the night. The chick adjusted to his hours and made an awful fuss if it was sent to bed—actually, a crock Grant kept in the closet—before 2 or 3 a.m. It was also fussy about its victuals. It wouldn’t eat toast without butter or potatoes without gravy. One evening, the chick was acting up while company was over, so Grant deposited it in the crock, placed a book on top and forgot all about it. By morning, deprived of air, butter and gravy, the chick was in a dead faint. We threw water on the chick and fanned her for almost an hour before she came to. It was a close shave. She was pretty weak, and Grant didn’t have her do much posing that day…”

So why were the chicken and the plum featured in the portrait. Wanda Corn a leading Grant Wood scholar knew Nan well before she died, at age 91, and in 1990 wrote about the portrait:

“…He [Grant] undoubtedly liked the chicken because as it perched, young and vulnerable, in the cupped hand of his sister, it conveyed her tenderness. And the plum because, as an artistic convention, fruit has always symbolized femininity…”

So according to Wanda Corn, the two images represented, for Wood, all that was beneficial and wholesome about the Midwest. Many believed the chicken and the plum were symbolic but Grant’s sister Nan had a more down to earth reasoning for the inclusion of the chicken and the plum. In 1944 she wrote about the portrait:

“…Grant said the chicken would repeat the colour of my hair and the plum would repeat the background…”

Nan’s role as a model for Grant’s paintings ended with Portrait of Nan, Tripp Evans wrote in his 2010 book, Grant Wood: A Life:

“…After completing the painting, Wood reportedly told his sister, ‘It’s the last portrait I intend to paint, and it’s the last time you will ever pose for me.’”

She was surprised—she’d spent years posing for him—and asked for an explanation.
Wood said, “Your face is too well known…”

..……to be continued

In my final blog about Grant Wood I will look at his later years, showcase more of his paintings and talk about a rumour concerning the artist which would never go away.


Apart from Wikipedia much of the information about the artist and his paintings came from:

Cedar Rapids Museum of Art
http://www.crma.org/content/Collection/Grant_Wood.aspx
Sullivan Goss an American Gallery
http://www.sullivangoss.com/Grant_Wood/#Bibliography
Nan Wood’s scrapbook
http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/grantwood/id/880
Eldon House
http://lde421.blogspot.com/2011/12/american-mona-lisa-profile-of-nan-wood.html

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July Fourth by Grandma Moses

July Fourth by Grandma Moses (1951)

Grandma Moses – Part 3

This is my third and final instalment of the life and times of Grandma Moses, the great American Folk artist.  If you have just landed on this page I suggest, before reading this blog, you first go back and look at the earlier blogs covering the early and middle part of her life (My Daily Art Display November 6th and 9th)

I ended the last blog talking about Grandma Moses successful one-man exhibition at Otto Kallir’s Manhattan Galerie St Etienne in October 1940.  At the time of her exhibition she was eighty years of age.  Before the exhibition had finished its one-month run the large Manhattan department store, Gimbels, asked that Grandma Moses’ artwork be exhibited in their store’s large auditorium in time for the Thanksgiving Festival the following month and they invited the artist to be in attendance to talk to the shoppers.  Grandma Moses, who had not attended her one-woman show, agreed to Gimbels’ “meet and greet” request and arrived accompanied by Carolyn Thomas, the owner of the Hoosick Falls drugstore, where the artist’s work was first put on display and her artistic journey had begun.

After the success of the Galerie St Etienne exhibition Grandma Moses works were put on display at other exhibitions in New York and Washington.  In 1941 she exhibited some of her works at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts and for her painting The Old Oaken Bucket, she was awarded the New York State Prize.  Over the years Grandma Moses received numerous requests from people for copies of her work, which they had seen at various exhibitions.  She rarely refused and this would explain why titles of her works often recurred.   It should also be noted that although she provided copies of specific works for people, she would often deviate slightly from the original.  In some cases the scene would be the same but the time of year and thus the weather conditions were changed and thus the tonal quality of the painting was adjusted.

When one looks at the many winter scenes depicted in Grandma Moses’ paintings one can understand why a greetings card company would be interested in her work.  The Brundage Greeting Card Company arranged for a number of her paintings to be part of their 1946 Christmas card selection and the following year, 1947, Hallmark acquired the right to reproduce Grandma Moses paintings and they went on to appear for many years on their Christmas and Greetings cards.

In 1849, aged 89, Grandma Moses attended the Women’s National Press Club Awards held at the Statler Hotel in Washington.  Over seven hundred guests and dignitaries attended and watch President Truman hand out the six awards to women who had made substantial contribution in their field.  Grandma Moses’ received her award for her outstanding accomplishment in Art.  Other award winners were Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s widow, Eleanor for her work as Chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission, Madeleine Carroll, the actress and America’s first female elected mayor of a large city (Portland, Oregon), Dorothy McCullough.  The day after the Awards ceremony Grandma Moses was invited by President Truman and his wife to take tea with them at their Blair House residence (The White House was closed between 1949 and 1951 while the building, which had been found to have serious structural faults, was completely gutted and rebuilt and refurbished).

At the end of May 1949, Grandma Moses returned home to Eagle Bridge in triumph and was met and serenaded by an estimated eight hundred people.  Eagle Bridge had never seen the like before.  She remembered that day well and despite all the homecoming celebrations, she wrote of the time in a letter, simply stating:

“…In a way I was glad to get back and go to bed that night…”

In February 1949, Grandma Moses’ youngest son Hugh, who, along with his wife Dorothy, had been living with her and helping run the Mount Nebo farm died suddenly.  She remained at the farmhouse but two years later in 1951 she moved across the road to a new ranch-style house, which her sons, Forrest and Lloyd had built for her.  Now aged 91, she was not to be left to live alone as her daughter Winona returned from California to be with her.

In March 1952 when President Truman was finally allowed to go back with his wife to live at the White House after its extensive refurbishment, Grandma Moses wrote to his wife:

 “…As I have seen in the papers, the White House will be reopened on April 1st.  It would be a great pleasure to me to dedicate on this occasion an original painting by Grandma Moses to the White House and to the American people, if the President and you would approve of my intention, and if there is a place for it…”

Her offer was accepted and her painting entitled July Fourth has been hanging in the White House ever since.   This is My Daily Art Display featured painting for today.   In 1955 she completed another painting for a US President – this time it was a work of art for President Dwight Eisenhower, entitled The Eisenhower Farm, which was presented to him in January 1956, by Vice President Richard Nixon to mark the third anniversary of his inauguration.  Eisenhower was delighted with the painting but did comment that he wished his farm was as big as the one depicted in Grandma Moses’s painting.

Following the end of World War II Grandma Moses fame spread to Europe.  They had already seen illustrations of her work in magazines but there was now a hunger to see the originals.   In 1950 a collection of fifty of her works was sent to Europe and were shown at exhibitions in all the major European art capitals such as Vienna, Munich, Salzburg, Paris, Berne and The Hague.   The attitude to her artwork changed after these exhibitions.  The art critic for the London journal, Art News and Review wrote:

“…Grandma Moses is one of the key symbols of our time…….She is clearly an artist, whose paintings reveal a quality identical with genius…”

High praise indeed !!

In 1955 she took part in a famous TV programme with the legendry radio and TV commentator Edward Murrow and in May 1960 Governor of the New York State, Nelson Rockefeller issued a proclamation declaring September 7th that year to be “Grandma Moses Day”, which was the day of her one hundredth birthday.

By this time Grandma Moses’ health was starting to decline.  Her strength was waning and she was having severe difficulty with walking.   After a number of falls her son Forrest took her to the Health Centre at Hoosick Falls.  Sadly for Grandma Moses it was decided that she could not continue to live in her home as she needed constant care and so she was admitted to the nursing home.  Away from her own home she was unable to paint and this saddened her.  She never made it back home and although she celebrated her 101st birthday at the Hoosick Falls Health Centre she passed away three months later on December 13th 1961 and was buried at the Maple Grove Cemetery.

News of her death spread far and wide and tributes poured in.  President Kennedy issued the following statement:

“…The death of Grandma Moses removes a beloved figure from American life.  The directness and vividness of her paintings restored a primitive freshness to our perception of the American scene.  All Americans mourn her loss.  Both her work and her life helped our nation renew its pioneer heritage and recalled its roots in the countryside and on the frontier…”

I hope you have enjoyed this look at an astounding female artist.  I have trawled through reams of information to try and get a true picture of the great lady’s life.  I have come across numerous factual contradictions, which I have tried to sort out.   My main source of information was a book I bought myself entitled Grandma Moses by Otto Kallir.  It is a wonderful book and one I recommend you buy.

Bringing in the Maple Sugar by Grandma Moses

Bringing in the Maple Sugar by Grandma Moses (1939)

Grandma Moses – Part 2

This is the second part of my story about Grandma Moses and if you have just alighted on this page, you should go back to my last blog in which I looked at her early life.

I ended my last blog about Grandma Moses in the year 1927.  This was the year when her husband of almost forty years, Thomas Salmon Moses, died and Anna May Robertson Moses became a sixty-seven year old widow.  Following her husband’s death, she remained on her Mount Nebo farmstead along with her youngest son Hugh, who took over the running of the farm along with his wife Dorothy.  One of Grandma Moses’ other daughters, Anna, lived close by in the town of Bennington with her husband Frank, who was her first cousin, and their two children Walter and Thomas.   Anna had contracted tuberculosis and had become very ill.  Grandma Moses spent a lot of time with her and her family taking care of her two grandchildren.  Anna Moses died in 1933 and Grandma Moses stayed on at their Bennington home for the next two years looking after her son-in-law and his children.  This arrangement continued until 1935, at which time Frank Moses remarried and Grandma Moses was then able to return to her home.

Over those past years Grandma Moses found more time to carry on with her embroidery and needlepoint work.  Once when her sister Celestia came to Mount Nebo for a visit she saw some of her sister’s work and suggested that she should concentrate more on painting rather than embroidery.  This advice, together with the fact that Grandma Moses was suffering badly from arthritis of the hands, persuaded her to heed her sister’s advice and she began to concentrate all her artistic efforts, not in yarn but in oils.

I ended my last blog by mentioning Grandma Moses “big break” as far as her artistic opportunities were concerned.   This came in 1938 when her daughter-in-law, Dorothy persuaded her to let her take some of her embroidered work and painted pictures down to the Woman’s Exchange in the W.D. Thomas drugstore in Hoosick Falls and it was at this point that fate stepped in and took a hand,  for passing through the town during his Easter vacation was Louis Calder, a New York amateur art collector and engineer.  He spotted Grandma Moses’ works displayed in the drugstore window, priced between $3 and $5 and he bought them all.  He then enquired about the artist of his recent acquisitions and went to visit her.  He then bought a further ten of her works.

Louis Calder returned to New York and tried to interest people in Grandma Moses’ works.  There was little interest.  Somewhat despondent Calder had virtually given up hope of re-selling his newly bought acquisitions.  However the following year, 1939, he got to hear about an exhibition being held in the Members Room of the city’s Museum of Modern Art that was to open on October 18th and run for a month.  The exhibition was to be entitled Contemporary Unknown American Painters.  Calder went to the organiser of the show, Sidney Janis and showed him the works of Grandma Moses which he had just bought the previous year.   Janis agreed to exhibit three of the paintings, Home,  Maple Sugar Days and The First Automobile.   None of the paintings sold but Calder was not disheartened and contacted Grandma Moses urging her to produce further works for him.

In the meantime Louis Calder went on searching for prospective buyers for the paintings.  It was at the end of 1939 that he heard of a new gallery, Galerie St Etienne, which had recently been opened by Otto Kallir on Manhattan’s West 57th Street.   In 1938, Otto Kallir, then known as Otto Nierenstein, was one of Vienna’s most prominent Jewish art dealers but had fled the Nazi regime and emigrated to the United States.  He then, in 1939, established his gallery and helped to introduce Expressionism to America.   Later in the 1940’s and 1950’s, Kallir would give numerous important Austrian and German modernists, including Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Alfred Kubin, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Egon Schiele their first American exhibitions in his gallery.   Otto Kallir was known to be interested in folk art and primitive art and so Louis Calder arranged for him to see some of Grandma Moses’ art work.

One of the paintings which Kallir really liked was entitled Bringing in the Maple Sugar and it is this painting which I have featured in My Daily Art Display blog today.   Grandma Moses completed the work in 1839 and it depicts a sugaring-off scene in which people are collecting sap from the maple trees.  It is a winter scene set in a snow-covered clearing and we can see people busying themselves with the task in hand of collecting the precious tree sap to be used in making maple syrup.  Once the sap is collected in the buckets it is carried over and poured into kettles which dangle over fires.  Besides the hard-working adults in the scene, Grandma Moses has added the figures of children happily playing in the snow and waiting for some maple syrup candy which is being prepared by a man on the left who is busily stirring the pot.   To the right of the picture we can see a horse-driven sleigh loaded with timber which will be used to keep the fires burning.  In the left mid-ground we see a team of oxen approaching, pulling their sleigh full of wood.  It is a painting full of activity but what impressed Kallir most of all was not the way the artist had painted the figures, which he considered rather clumsy, but the way she had painted the landscape background.  He commented that although he believed Grandma Moses had never heard of any rules of perspective, she had managed to achieve an impression of depth in the way she had depicted the tall bare trees in the foreground to smaller ones in the background and the clearly outlined larger figures in the foreground to the smaller, hazy-detailed figures in the background.   He also liked how she had almost merged the smoke which billowed and rose from the chimney of the hut and the bluish gray sky of an early morning in winter.  For Kallir it was Grandma Moses’ ability to convey a true atmosphere and a oneness with nature that appealed to him.

Otto Kallir agreed to exhibit Grandma Moses’ works in a “one-man show” at his gallery.  It opened on October 9th 1940 and was entitled What a Farm Wife Painted and consisted of thirty-three of her paintings and one of her embroidered works.  The New York Times of October 8th previewed the exhibition and part of the article read:

“…Mrs Anna May Robertson Moses, known to the countryside around Greenwich, New York, as Grandma Moses, began painting three years ago, when she was approaching 80…”

From that day on Anna Mary Robertson Moses became known as Grandma Moses.