Saturday, April 5, 2014

Women with Gumption: Mayflower Descendant Grandma Moses

Do you have a female ancestor who started a new career late in life? Is there a woman in your tree who defied the odds and made a name for herself despite her age and income? Many people believe that women used to just stay home and tend to housework and family matters. I think they were more talented and industrious than we might suspect.

Since my blog is called “The Art of Genealogy,” I thought I would talk about one of my favorite female artists:  the wonderful Grandma Moses.  I love her colorful, folksy depiction of everyday life in upstate New York, Vermont and Virginia. I grew up in upstate New York, and much of her work reminds me of the scenery of my childhood. My mother, also an artist, used to talk about Grandma Moses with admiration when I was a child.  I would be thrilled to have "Grandma" in my family tree, but so far I have found no connection.

There are hundreds of newspaper articles and plenty of books about Grandma Moses. One of my favorite books is The Essential Grandma Moses by Jane Kallir. Whenever I want to relax and feel good, I grab this little book and read about a woman from humble beginnings on a farm who became one of the most beloved artists in our country. The book is filled with reproductions of her artwork—covered bridges, weddings, snow-covered hills, horses pulling carts, maple sugar making, picnics and autumn trees. On page 22, there is a photograph of Grandma’s gnarled fingers holding a paintbrush. She did not let arthritis stop her from being great.


“Grandma Moses” was born Anna Mary Robertson on 7 Sep 1860 in Washington County, New York to parents of Scotch and Irish heritage. (1) When she was 27, Anna married Thomas Salmon Moses, and they moved to Virginia. (2) Anna would bear ten children with only five living past infancy. (3) In 1905, Thomas convinced Anna to move back to New York. (4) There Anna began experimenting with painting to pass the time. (5) In 1918, at the age of 58, Anna produced one of her first paintings called “Fireboard.” (6) Anna’s pastime of choice was embroidery, but she gave it up due to arthritis. (7) Louis J. Caldor, a New York City art collector, discovered her paintings in a drugstore window in 1938. (8) In 1940, Anna debuted at the Galerie St. Etienne with an exhibit called “What a Farm Wife Painted.” (9) The December 28, 1953 issue of Time Magazine had Grandma on the cover with the caption "Christmas is not just one day."


According to the Francis Cooke Society, Grandma Moses was a descendant of the Mayflower passenger Francis Cooke. (10) She was also a member of the DAR. See the article entitled “Grandma Moses to Give DAR Painting of Famous Battle." Check out her “Battle of Bennington” painting at "By, For, and of the People: Folk Art and Americana in the DAR Museum."

Anna was 101 when she died in 1961. (11) She continued to paint until the last few months before her death. (12) What an inspiration to all of us!


If you would like to read and learn more about this amazing woman, these are some links to interesting information about Grandma Moses:

Guide to the Robertson Family Papers, 1820-1907

Grandma Moses Is Dead at 101; Primitive Artist 'Just Wore Out'


Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York, Electronic Clip Art, "Decorative Silhouettes," 2003.

Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York, Electronic Clip Art, "American Historical Illustrations and Emblems," 2001.

Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York, Electronic Clip Art, "Dover's Greatest Clips," 2010.


(1) Jane Kallir, The Essential Grandma Moses, (New York, New York: The Wonderland Press, 2001), p. 9.

(2) Ibid., p. 15

(3) Ibid., p. 17.

(4) Ibid., pp. 17 and 18.

(5) Ibid., p. 19.

(6) Ibid., p. 19.

(7) Ibid., pp. 25 and 26.

(8) Ibid., p. 29.

(9) Ibid., p. 33.

(10) “Famous Descendants of Mayflower Passenger Francis Cooke,” Francis Cooke Society, ( accessed 4 Apr 2014).

(11) Op Cit., The Essential Grandma Moses, p. 103.

(12) Ibid., p. 102.

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