If you have been watching the prices of Clementine Hunter's work over the past two years, you will know that they have soared to astronomical heights. Black artists have been in the spotlight lately, and while she's been a big regional artist for a very long time, she's a national figure now and being added to many museum collections. Institutions and prominent collectors have moved in hard. I was really happy to get this one. At any rate, the first thing to ask about any Clementine is: is it authentic. Yes, there are fakes, and paintings by her son that are mistaken for (or presented as) hers. I won't touch anything by her that hasn't been verified, and this one has been verified by the #1 Clementine expert, Tom Whitehead. Of course it has my own guarantee as well; I have sold many Clementines. You can find fakes at auction houses (many of them outside of the New Orleans area) and other venues that don't ask questions, for a lot less money, but don't be fooled! Anyway, about this marvelous painting. It is common to see Clementine's plantation scenes such as "wash day", picking crops or cotton, etc., and great as they are, the subject here is truly unique and touching. This is a nativity scene, but there are no wise men with frankincense and myrrh present at this one: instead, a young black girl in a white dress presents the infant Jesus with a bouquet of flowers - and not in a manger, but what appears to be a plantation! Jesus and Mary are black as well. Note that this was not a socio-political statement for Hunter; she was uncomplicated, gracious and sweet, I hear from those who knew her, and as far as I know non-political; she simply painted what she knew. And this was the nativity on her terms. She raised seven children of her own at the Hidden Hill and Melrose plantations, where she spent her whole life. Of course, in this painting she took no more liberties than that of European artists who had been painting Christ as a western white man visited by three kings for over fifteen hundred years. Note the cabin in back, like the ones on the plantations, and the plantain fronds framing Mother and Child, which would also have been present on the plantation as well. The sky appears as a ribbon along the top of the painting. Oil on canvas board, monogrammed mid-right, inscribed with title on backing paper, 13 7/8 in. x 17 7/8 in., framed.
Often referred to as “the black Grandma Moses,” Clementine Hunter painted four to five thousand paintings, which were boldly colored images in folk art style of plantation life in Louisiana. Her subjects included everyday activities such as doing laundry and festive events including weddings, dances, and church going. She also did mural painting, and a number of her works had Christian religious subjects.
She was born at Hidden Hill Plantation near Natchitoches, Louisiana, and lived there the remainder of her life pf one-hundred-one years, raising seven children and working in the fields. She attended a local Catholic school, but quit at a young age and never learned to read or write. At age sixteen, she moved to nearby Melrose Plantation, where she worked for many years as a field hand.
Her first male companion and father of two of her children was Charlie Dupree, who died in 1914. Ten years later she married Emanuel Hunter, and moved into the plantation house where she was in charge of the domestic work. Becoming associated with the plantation mistress, Ms. Cammie Henry, changed Hunter’s life. Henry, was an archivist and artist who actively encouraged the arts. She opened her home to artists and authors who needed a quiet place to work. It was at Melrose that Hunter first began her production of hand made quilts, dolls, and lace curtains.
Meeting artist friends of Ms. Henry, Hunter met many people in the art world and was especially influenced and promoted by Francois Mignon, who was an artist-in-residence at the plantation. In 1946, under his direction, she did her first work, a plantation baptism scene, from a few partially used tubes of oil paint on a window shade that he provided. Another supporter at that time was James Register, also an artist-in- residence, and he obtained a Julius Rosenwald Foundation Grant for her. He encouraged her to do abstract art, which she did while letting him choose the titles.
But she preferred the folk art style. From that time, she was prolific, and created over four-thousand scenes of plantation life on whatever materials were available from scrap wood to paper bags. She thinned her oil paint so much it resembled watercolor. She sold many of her first works for a dime or quarter to pay for her husband’s medical treatment.
Legacy and honors:
One of the more well-known displays of Hunter’s artwork is located in a food storage building called “African House” on the grounds of Melrose Plantation. (African House is often referred to as slave quarters, however the building was built for, and always used for food storage.) The walls are covered in a mural Hunter painted in 1955, depicting scenes of Cane River plantation life. When she completed the mural, a local newspaper ran the headline: “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.”
The cafe and snack bar at the Alexandria Museum of Art is named for Hunter.
She was the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Delgado Museum (now the New Orleans Museum of Art). She achieved significant recognition during her lifetime, including an invitation to the White House from U.S. President Jimmy Carter and letters from both President Ronald Reagan and U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, Jr..
Radcliffe College included Hunter in its Black Women Oral History Project, published in 1980. Northwestern State University of Louisiana granted her an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1986. The following year, Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards designated her as an honorary colonel, a state honor, and aide-de-camp.
Hunter has been the subject of biographies and artist studies, and inspired other works of art. In 2013 composer Robert Wilson presented a new opera about her: Zinnias: the Life of Clementine Hunter, at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art, Volume II
Chuck and Jan Rosenak, Museum of American Art Folk Art Encyclopedia
“Clementine Hunter,” Wikipedia, Web, Mar. 2016
Alice Rae Yelen, “Passionate Visions,” American Art Review, February, 1995