Clementine Hunter American, 1887-1988
A Creole descendant of slaves, Clementine Hunter worked as a field hand, cotton picker, and housemaid, and she produced a vast opus—-several thousand paintings—re--creating life as she knew it as an African American woman in the Deep South. Hunter was born into a family of sharecroppers at the Hidden Hill Plantation in northwestern Louisiana and lived to age 101. She briefly attended a local Catholic school but never learned to read or write. As a teenager, she moved with her family to the Melrose Plantation near Natchitoches in the same county, one of the largest plantations in the United States.
She had two children with Charles Dupree, who died in 1914, and ten years later married Emmanuel Hunter, a woodchopper, with whom she had five children (two stillborn). She worked in the crop field until her thirties when, shortly after her marriage, Carmelite Henry, the owner of Melrose, brought her into the big house to do domestic work. When Mrs. Henry’s husband, John, died in 1917, “Miss Cammie,” as she was affectionately called, opened her home to writers and artists, hosting them for extended stays to live and work, turning Melrose into an artist colony. At some point in the late 1930s, inspired by this new environment, Hunter, who had already begun to explore her creativity with sewing, quilting, and doll making, picked up a brush and began painting.
Legend has it that Hunter gathered some discarded tubes of paint left by Alberta Kinsey, a visiting artist to Melrose, and used them to paint the scene of a baptism in Cane River on a discarded window shade. Melrose Plantation’s curator, François Mignon, and University of Oklahoma faculty member James Register encouraged Hunter and are largely responsible for setting her on the path to recognition. Through Register’s efforts, in 1944 Hunter received a Julius Rosenwald Foundation grant for African American visual artists, and in 1953 she was featured in a Look magazine article, “Innocence Regained” (June 16, 1953), which included a photograph of the artist in her cabin surrounded by her paintings, and brought her national attention. Hunter remained in Melrose Plantation’s employ until 1970, painting every night after completing her chores. At first, she used readily available materials such as house paint on cardboard, paper bags, scrap wood, snuff boxes, cutting boards, wine bottles, and milk jugs, but she moved on to the more conventional materials of oil and watercolors on canvas. She did not typically title her paintings, but when asked for a title she would provide descriptive or narrative lines.
In the thousands of works that she painted (said to be between five and ten thousand), Hunter left behind a visual history of life in the confines of a plantation. With simplified figures, usually in profile, and a lack of scale and perspective, her compositions are imaginative and effective. Aside from a number of Christian religious works, still lifes, and landscapes, the predominant subject of her work is ordinary and anonymous folk working the land, cooking, washing, resting, going to church, participating in dances, celebrating weddings and baptisms, and attending funerals. This theocentric, orderly world, uncomplicated for those inside it, is rich with insight for those with the benefit of historical hindsight. Hunter also painted murals, the best known being the African House Murals that she painted in 1955 on the walls of a plantation food storehouse building at Melrose. When she completed the mural, a local newspaper ran a story headlined “A 20th Century Woman of Color Finishes a Story Begun 200 Years Ago by an 18th Century Congo-Born Slave Girl, Marie-Therese, the original grantee of Melrose Plantation.”
Even though Hunter’s work was exhibited as early as 1949, she did not receive widespread recognition until the 1970s, when the American Folk Art Museum (New York) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art showed her paintings. In the years that followed, she became the first African American given a solo exhibition at the Delgado Museum (now the New Orleans Museum of Art). When the wife of a former Louisiana senator arranged a trip for her to the White House to meet President Jimmy Carter, she declined the opportunity, saying, “If Jimmy Carter wants to see me, he knows where I am,” typical of her personal lack of interest in fame. When Northwestern State University of Louisiana awarded her an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1985, it was only the fourth degree of this kind issued by the hundred-year-old institution, and the first to an African American. Hunter’s works have been included in many exhibitions and they can be found in the permanent collections of the American Folk Art Museum (New York), the High Museum of Art (Atlanta), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (New Orleans), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.).