Hunter, Clementine 1887(?)–1988
Clementine Hunter 1887(?)–1988
A one-of-a-kind artist who documented and interpreted a vanished world of Southern plantation life, Clementine Hunter was over 50 years old when she began to paint. Hunter lived most of her life on a plantation in Louisiana’s Cane River region, and her paintings depicted the hard work, the religion, and the social and recreational lives of the people around her. “Her work is a colorful stroke of life,” Louisiana State Museum director Carolyn Harrington told the Baton Rouge Advocate. In later years, Hunter’s works became favorites of white art collectors, a trend that only accelerated after Hunter’s death in 1988. The works that Hunter had once sold to friends for 25 cents apiece now commanded prices of up to $50,000.
Clementine Reuben Hunter was born on the Hidden Hill plantation near Cloutierville, Louisiana. The exact date of her birth is not known, but Hunter was most likely born in January of 1887. A mixed-race (Native American, African, French, and Irish) Louisiana Creole, she was known by the French form of her name, Clemence, for much of her youth. Raised in the Catholic church, Hunter attended a Catholic elementary school for three years but dropped out before she learned to read. She remained illiterate for the rest of her life. From age eight she worked in fields picking cotton, hoeing corn, and cutting sugar cane. When Hunter was a teenager, her family moved to the Melrose Plantation near Natchitoches.
The life she lived there at first was similar in many respects to what her mother’s parents experienced under slavery. Hunter continued to work as a cotton picker, a vocation that until the end of her life she maintained that she loved even more than painting. She had seven children, two by an eccentric mechanic named Charlie Dupree with whom she lived early in the twentieth century and five more after marrying Emanuel Hunter in 1924. She outlived most of her children, none of whom ever owned any of her paintings—she sold or gave them all away, never saving any for herself either.
In the late 1920s, Hunter moved from the fields into the plantation house and began working as a maid. Melrose was an unusual plantation in that its mistress, Cammie Henry, had a strong interest in history and the arts. Henry worked to preserve several old structures on the grounds that showed the influence of African
Born Clemence Reuben Hunter ca. January 1887 on Hidden Hill Plantation near Cloutierville, LA; died on January 1, 1988; married Emanuel Hunter, 1924; children: two by Charlie Dupree, five by Hunter. Religion: Catholic,
Career: Field hand, 1900s-1920s; Melrose Plantation, domestic servant, late 1920s; painter, 1939-80s.
Awards: Julius Rosenwald fellowship, 1944,
architecture, and Hunter would later paint murals on their walls. Various artists and writers, including William Faulkner and John Steinbeck, passed through Melrose as visitors. But the one who noticed Hunter’s talent was an itinerant native of New York State named Frank Mineah, who masqueraded as a French trader and art critic named François Mignon and who had moved in at Melrose with the idea of becoming a curator of the plantation’s historical collections.
For many years, Hunter had made clothes and quilts, and she was an adept basketmaker. So what happened in 1939, when she found some tubes of paint that an artist visitor had left behind, wasn’t a total surprise. She told Mignon that she thought she could do a painting if she set her mind to it, and he gave her a discarded window shade to use as a canvas. By early the next morning, she had presented him with a finished work of art. For much of her artistic career, Hunter would work at paintings at a single sitting, going without sleep until she finished.
That painting became the first of over 5,000 Hunter would create, working consistently well into her nineties. At first, with absolutely no financial resources of her own, she thinned paints out until they looked almost like watercolors when she put them on a canvas—or on a paper bag, piece of wood, gourd, plastic milk jug, or anything else at hand. Hunter painted the hard life that African Americans lived in the rural South, governed by cycles of planting and harvest.
She focused on religious gatherings and on the ceremonies that accompanied life’s milestones: births, weddings, funerals. Sometimes she painted the violent side of Louisiana’s roadside honky-tonks, sometimes still lifes of flowers or animal scenes. Most striking, perhaps, are Hunter’s religious works like Cotton Crucifixion (a title affixed, as with most of the titles of Hunter’s works, by white collectors). That painting showed a black Christ, with white thieves and black field hands dragging cotton sacks past the base of the cross. Sometimes classified as a folk or primitive artist although she was not part of a folk tradition and was anything but primitive, Hunter stuck to simple techniques but packed a great many details and events into most of her paintings. She did not use perspective, and she had a bold, original color sense.
With the help of Mignon and later of University of Oklahoma faculty member James Register, who helped her win a Julius Rosenwald financial grant in 1944, Hunter began to become well known among Southern art collectors. Some saw in Hunter a Southern counterpart of Grandma Moses, who like Hunter began to paint very late in life. Hunter’s works were exhibited in galleries and museums, and in 1955 she became the first African-American artist given a solo show at the New Orleans Museum of Art (then called the Delgado Museum). Look magazine profiled Hunter and her work in 1959.
In the early 1960s Register, who like Mignon had moved in at Melrose, tried to push Hunter in the direction of then-fashionable abstract art, giving her geometric paper shapes (cut out of magazine advertisements) to work with. Although Hunter was quoted as saying in Gambit Weekly that “those things made my head sweat,” she complied, creating montages that resembled African masks. Hunter’s abstract works fetched high prices and contributed to her mystique. She continued to sell paintings to her friends for just a few dollars, but collectors increasingly paid top dollar for her works—not all of which found its way into Hunter’s pockets. Some African Americans shunned Hunter’s art, wanting no reminder of the plantation past.
In the final decades of her life, Hunter was a minor celebrity. A man in New Orleans was arrested for counterfeiting her works. President Jimmy Carter invited her to the White House in the late 1970s, but she declined. “I’m not interested in going anywhere,” she was quoted as saying in Gambit Weekly. “The priest told me it ain’t no use to go to church every day. He told me the Lord can hear your prayers.” After Melrose was sold, Hunter lived in a trailer nearby. She died on January 1, 1988, aged 101 or 102 and the matriarch of a group of 18 grandchildren, 42 great-grandchildren, and 15 great-great-grandchildren. Soon after her death, Hunter’s life and work became the subject of several book-length studies, a children’s book, and numerous exhibitions.
Gilley, Shelby, Painting by Heart: The Life and Art of Clementine Hunter, Louisiana Folk Artist, St. Emma Press, 2000.
Hunter, Clementine, Talking with Tebe: Clementine Hunter, Memory Artist, edited by Mary E. Lyons, Houghton, 1998.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale, 1992.
St. James Guide to Black Artists, St. James Press, 1997.
Wilson, James Lee, Clementine Hunter: American Folk Artist, Pelican, 1988.
Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA), January 18, 2002, p. 3.
Chicago Sun-Times, January 2, 1988, p. 34.
Gambit Weekly (New Orleans), January 16, 2001, p. 23.
Houston Chronicle, January 2, 1988, p. 28.
Star-Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), October 20, 1992, p. El.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans), August 21, 1002, p. 1; July 11, 2002, p. 2.
Blokhuis-Mulder, Jantje, “Clementine Hunter: Louisiana’s Most Famous Folk Artist,” Folk Art Life, www.jantjeblokhuismulder.com/articles/clementinehunter.shtml (May 9, 2004).
Clementine Hunter: From Cotton Fields to Canvas, http://hudson.acad.umn.edu/Hunter/clem.html (May 5, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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