In 1961, when the American farm wife known as Grandma Moses died, she was 101 and world-famous. Born a year before the Civil War, she was in her seventies when she taught herself to paint and in her eighties when she became a superstar. Today, Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961) is known chiefly through reproductions of her oil paintings, especially her winter scenes — quintessential American pictures — which still appear on dinnerware (based on her painting Home for Thanksgiving) and millions of Christmas cards. She never painted until after the death of her husband in 1927, when arthritis forced her to abandon the “worsted pictures” she’d been embroidering. Soon she was offering her oil paintings on pressed wood for sale at county fairs, along with her prize-winning pickles.
Her big break came in 1938 when a traveling collector from New York saw them in the window of a pharmacy in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., and bought the lot. He took the paintings to Otto Kallir, a refugee Viennese art dealer who’d opened the Galerie St. Etienne in Manhattan. It was Kallir who launched her career in 1940 with a show titled “What a Farm Woman Painted.” Five years later, her fame skyrocketed when Hallmark purchased the right to reproduce her paintings on Christmas cards, selling 6 million copies the first year. That same year, the first book on “Grandma Moses” made the New York Times bestseller list.