“At bottom, every man knows perfectly well that he is a unique being, only once on this earth; and by no extraordinary chance will such a marvelously picturesque piece of diversity in unity as he is, ever be put together a second time.” -Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher (1844-1900)
Her artwork is considered folk art, whimsical and eclectic. But, for many people, little is known of the artist herself. Her name is Clementine Hunter.
Ms. Hunter (late December, 1886 or early January, 1887 – January 1 , 1988), was a self-taught artist renowned for her folk paintings of Black life in northern Louisiana.
“If Jimmy Carter wants to see me, ke knows where I am. He can come here.” This reply to President Jimmy Carter’s invitation that she come to Washington for the opening of an exhibition of her work is vintage Clementine Hunter. Her disregard for fame and the famous was part of her special charm and did not change, even after she became known worldwide for her colorful folk paintings of Black life in the Cane River region of northern Louisiana.
Ms. Hunter was born on Hidden Hill Plantation, near Cloutierville, Louisiana. her mother, Mary Antoinette Adams, was the daughter of a slave who was brought to Louisiana from Virginia. her father, John Reuben, had an Irish father and a Native American mother. Ms. Hunter considered herself a Creole. When she was a teenager, she moved with her family from Hidden Hill to Yucca Plantation, which was renamed Melrose, seventeen miles south of Natchitoches, Louisiana. Melrose was created by a former slave, Marie Therese Coincoin and her family in the late 1770s. (The plantation was later sold to John Hampton and Carmelita Garritt Henry in 1898). Ms. Hunter lived and worked at Melrose until 1970, when the plantation was sold; then she moved to a small trailer a few miles away, where she lived until her death.
Her first husband was Charles Dupree, the father of her first two children–Joseph (Frenchie) and Cora–died about 1914. In January 1924, Ms. Hunter married Emmanuel Hunter, by whom she had five children: Agnes, King, Mary (called Jackie), and two who died at birth. Emmanuel Hunter died in 1944. Clementine Hunter outlived all her children except Mary.
Like many Black women of her time, Ms. Hunter created exquisite quilts in beautiful colors, as well as handmade dolls and clothes for children. Her paintings included works done on the following: oil on paper, cardboard and canvas, art board, even some paintings done on glass bottles, such as her work Painted Bottle, done on a nine-inch tall bottle.
Ms. Hunter’s mentor was Francois Mignon, a French writer who lived on Melrose Plantation from 1938 to 1970. According to Mignon, Ms. Hunter did her first painting in 1939. From then until a few months before her death, she painted continually, on any surface she could find. Her output was prodigious; estimates are that she completed more than five thousand paintings. Like many folk artists, however, Ms. Hunter painted the same scenes over and over. Her works roughly fall into five thematic categories: work scenes from plantation life; recreation scenes; religious scenes; flowers and birds; and abstracts. The quality of her work varies greatly, but her paintings are prized for their vibrant colors and whimsical humour.
Wash Day,c. 1970, oil on rigid pasteboard, 18″ x 24″.
Canasta Players, c. mid-1960s, oil on rigid pasteboard, 24″ x 16″.
Bowl of Zinnias, c. 1939. Oil on corrugated board, 20-1/2″ x 16-3/4″.
The first exhibit of Ms. Hunter’s work was at the New Orleans Arts and Crafts show in 1949.She was the first Black American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Delgado Museum (now the New Orleans Museum of Art). A Look Magazine article published in June 16, 1953 gave her national attention. After three exhibits in the 1950s, her work received little attention until the early 1970s, when it was shown at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City (1973) and in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibit “Two Centuries of Black American Art” (1976). In the last fifteen years of her life, Ms. Hunter had many one-woman shows at colleges and galleries throughout Louisiana, She was featured on local and national television shows and was included in two oral Black-history projects (Fisk University, 1971; Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, 1976). She also was part of the photographic exhibition “Women of Courage by Judith Sedwick,” shown in 1985 in New York and Boston. That same year, Ms. Hunter was awarded an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from Northwestern State University of Louisiana in Natchitoches. Although the quality of Ms. Hunter’s paintings may be uneven, the historical value of her work is beyond question. Her artworks now command prices that range between a few thousand dollars to over $20,000 a painting.
Ms. Hunter died in Louisiana at the age of 101.
“Clementine Hunter”, by Anne Hudson Jones, from Black Women in America, by Darlene Clark Hine, et. al.