A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
As illustrated by Grandma Moses and her paintings, just ‘cause there’s snow on the roof doesn’t mean there’s not a fire inside.
By Sean Braswell
Anna Mary Robertson never set out to become one of the best-known artists of her time. By the 1930s, she had led a full life as a farmer’s wife in upstate New York, giving birth to five sons and five daughters and enjoying the company of 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. But in her 78th year, when most people learn to accept the loss of old skills, the woman who friends and family lovingly called Grandma Moses taught herself a new one.
The point of learning to paint was not to get on the cover of Life magazine or the Edward R. Murrow television show, as she would later do. It was a matter of practicality, of plugging a hole. When her arthritic fingers could no longer sew, Grandma Moses decided to take up painting. “Painting’s not important,” she liked to say. “The important thing is keeping busy.”
Even after she’d been “discovered” by a New York art collector, she diligently kept to her routine. Perched on two pillows on a worn swivel chair, she used an old table as her easel and her cluttered kitchen as her studio.
Many of her works would grace some of the best-selling Christmas cards of all time, but she did not paint with Hallmark in mind. While her paintings of pastoral life may have been more Hallmark than Hallmark could ever be, she was painting memories — of her childhood, of families and feasts, of communal life, of honesty and hard work, of an America long gone. Norman Rockwell, a classically trained artist who grew up in New York City, also painted meticulously crafted scenes of everyday life in America, but Grandma Moses had lived them.
”Painting’s not important,” she liked to say. “The important thing is keeping busy.”
And it was just that sense of having lived, of a sheer lifetime of experiences that imbued her work with a sense of truth and beauty that resonated with millions. Grandma Moses was a Brueghelesque talent not unlike the self-taught French artist and observer of daily life, Henri Rousseau. She had buried a husband and five infant children in the Shenandoah Valley; had lived through the Civil War, a Great Depression and two World Wars; and had witnessed the arrival of the automobile, telephones and electricity.
Painting was a natural outgrowth of these experiences; it was not just a way to spend her life, it was a reflection of it. And by the time that life ended in 1961, at the age of 101 and nearly a quarter century after taking up her new hobby, Grandma Moses had completed over 1,500 works and become a global icon, providing inspiration to housewives, widows, nonagenarians and dreamers everywhere.
Here’s a lesson for us all from a tiny, lively woman known for her quick wit and sharp tongue: Get busy living, get busy dying or, like Grandma Moses, just get busy with something you love and let life and death take care of themselves.