Grandma knows best

Grandma Moses’ American grown paintings close season at DAI

By Lisa Bennett
Photo:Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses, Untitled; American Sampler: Grandma Moses and the Handicraft Tradition runs through Feb. 21 at the DAI

No one in the 1930s would have guessed that the grieving widow who created one of the largely ignored paintings sitting in a drugstore window would become a celebrated, world-renown artist beloved by future generations. Nor would they have guessed that a piece of her artwork, “Sugaring Off,” would eventually sell for $1.2 million dollars.
Anna Mary Robertson Moses, also known as “Grandma Moses,” was a simple farm wife who loved art, even from a very young age. Since a farm life left little free time, Grandma Moses’ early works were handicrafts, such as sewing, quilting and eventually crewel embroidery. She drew her inspiration largely from natural landscapes, local artists in the Hudson River Valley of New York and popular prints from Currier and Ives.
In 1932, just five years after the death of her husband, Grandma Moses traveled to Bennington, Vermont to care for her daughter Anna, who had contracted tuberculosis. She stayed there for a few years following Anna’s death to care for her grandchildren, then returned to her farm in Eagle Bridge. Grief-stricken, she immersed herself in her handicrafts, but arthritis made it increasingly painful to do her stitching. So, the 78-year-old grandmother turned to painting.
As her painting collection grew, Grandma Moses began selling them along with her jams at the local county fair. Her jams won an award, but her paintings went overlooked.
She would eventually place them in the display window at the local pharmacy where they attracted the attention of a traveling engineer and amateur art collector named Louis Caldor. When he inquired about the paintings, a friend of Grandma Moses told the intrepid collector that she had a total of 10 paintings and arranged for Grandma Moses to meet him the following morning. When told that Mr. Caldor was expecting 10 paintings instead of the eight that she had, the very clever granny simply cut one of the paintings she had in half.
“We have both halves that are going to be in the exhibition,” says Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, Chief Curator of the Dayton Art Institute Collections and Exhibitions.
The exhibition, American Sampler, Grandma Moses and the Handicraft Tradition is the cheerful conclusion to the DAI’s “Year of American Art.”
“Because she is such an iconic figure in American Art, we thought it would be a great way to end the season,” says DeGalan.
What makes the exhibition so unique is that it is the very first exhibition to correlate the link between Grandma Moses’ handiwork and her painting. When asked about the connection, DeGalan commented, “The two elements, the flatness of it and how patterned the brush work was, made me think that there must be some connection to handiwork.”
She added, “What I’m looking at at this show is her work through this lens of handicraft. In the final section of the exhibition, it really brings things together, where I’m looking at the worsted work and really analyzing the stitches and comparing them with the brushstrokes that she’s got in her paintings that really suggests that one informed the other. Nobody’s done that and so that’s why we’re really excited about looking at both facets of her work.”
The exhibition is broken down into four parts. The first part looks at the inspiration behind Grandma Moses’ work. DeGalan describes it as, “[talking] about the idea sampling, in that she sampled from other artists, whether she knew it directly or not.”
The second part takes an in-depth look at embroidered landscapes. “I talk about Hoosick Falls and Bennington and areas where she came to these hill towns that had these valleys and vistas that have this elevated perspective. Then I weave that through in to talking about her work directly and relate it to some quilts that are from our collection,” DeGalan says.
The third section is an exciting recreation of Grandma Moses’ home studio by interior designer, Randy Luken of Luken Interiors. Included in the recreation are a plethora of personal items that once belonged to Grandma Moses including her paintbrushes, a pallet, her chair, her Singer Treadle sewing machine among a number of other items including the only quilt known for certain to be made by her.
“The last section is bringing everything together and is looking at the worsted work, or the crewel as she called it, and the paintings,” says DeGalan adding, “We also have two documentaries that we will be screening in the exhibition itself. We’ve got a 1950 documentary of her, which I believe was the first color television documentary ever on air, and a 1955 CBS Edward R. Murrow interview with her.”
Jane Kallir, granddaughter of Otto Kallir and owner of Galerie St. Etienne, will be there to give a lecture as well.
Though it may not be official, Grandma Moses appears to be a true pioneer in fiber arts if not the very first, making the American Sampler, Grandma Moses and the Handicraft Tradition exhibition the perfect stop to celebrate the holiday season.

American Sampler: Grandma Moses and the Handicraft Tradition is on view through Feb. 21 at the Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park N. in Dayton. Admission is $14 adults, $11 seniors, military and students, $6 youth ages 7-17 and free for children 6 and under. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday. For more information, please visit, or call 937.223.4278.

Reach DCP freelance writer Lisa Bennett at

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Reach DCP freelance writer Lisa Bennett at

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