How a former cotton picker became one of the most important folk artists of her time
Clementine Hunter may not have been a trained artist, but the self-taught former field hand became a household name in her home state of Louisiana for her bright, whimsical depictions of plantation life in early the 20th century. Often nicknamed the “black Grandma Moses” (another self-taught folk artist who took up painting at a late stage in life), Hunter has made a significant impact on the art world with her vibrant, playful paintings, amassing a fanbase that includes Oprah Winfrey and the late Joan Rivers.
Hunter's exact birthdate is unknown, but it is presumed to be either late 1886 or early 1887, at a time when slavery was still ingrained in living memory. She was born into a Louisian Creole family at Hidden Hill plantation, one of seven children; her grandparents had been slaves, and her parents worked on the plantation where she was born. Hidden Hill had a dire reputation, and it was said to be the inspiration behind the harsh conditions described in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
When she was 15, Hunter moved to Melrose plantation where she worked picking cotton. She only ever attended school for 10 days, forsaking education for work as she preferred working in the fields over books, meaning she never learned to read or write. It was at Melrose where she met Charlie Dupree, a mechanic with whom she had two children. Dupree passed away around 1914 but Hunter found happiness again when she married Emmanuel Hunter in 1924, a local woodchopper. Emmanuel taught Hunter how to speak “American”, as before she had only spoken Creole French. She had five more children, and on the morning before giving birth to one of them, she reportedly picked 78 pounds of cotton before going home and calling the midwife. She then returned to picking cotton just a few days later.
In the late 1920s, Hunter moved from being a field hand to working as a cook and a housekeeper. Melrose Plantation was owned by Cammie Henry, who decided to create an artist’s colony within its grounds where famous artists and writers could stay and work. In 1939, when Hunter was in her 50s, the New Orleans artist Alberta Kinsey left behind some brushes and paint after her visit; Hunter found them while cleaning and used them to mark out a picture of a river baptism on a window shade. This began her career as an artist.
Hunter painted from memory, recreating scenes from her life, such as picking cotton, washing clothes, and plantation funerals and baptisms. Her style is noted for its vibrant palette and expressive force, and her disregard for normal perspective and scale. Hunter also favored a wide use of materials as canvases: she painted on window shades, jugs, bottles, gourds, and discarded items like cardboard boxes.
One of her most well-known works covers the walls of a food storage building on the grounds of Melrose, which depicts scenes of plantation life on the Cane River. It is painted with oils on plywood, in nine panels that tell the cycles of planting, harvest, celebration, and mourning, as Hunter remembered it from her experiences. The painting depicts field hands weighing cotton, a funeral procession, washday, the pecan harvest, and a trip to the local honky-tonk bar. You can explore the mural, painted in 1955, on Street View below.
With the support of some patrons of the plantation, Hunter was able to practise her art and make a name for herself. François Mignon, the curator of the plantation and a good friend of Hunter gave her paints and materials and became somewhat of a PR figure for the artist. He got her paintings displayed in a local drugstore, where they were sold for $1, and co-authored a cookbook with her. Mignon, who originally came from New York, stayed on at Melrose for about three decades. They were so close that they even chose to be buried together after their deaths.
As Hunter was illiterate, she couldn’t sign her paintings, so her friend James Register would sometimes sign the paintings on her behalf, or Hunter would mark her work with a backwards C and an H, joined together like a Chinese character.
Hunter was also a talented sewer, and she sometimes transferred her artistic skills into quilting. She made a few quilts that had similar themes to her paintings. This one below is called Melrose Quilt and portrays the layout of Melrose: Melrose House, where the visiting artists would stay; Africa House, where Hunter painted her famed Cane River mural; Yucca House, a French-Creole cottage that served as the original family home; and another smaller building that may have been where Hunter herself lived.
Although today Hunter is considered a folk art legend, she lived in near poverty for her most of her life, and never travelled more than 100 miles from her home. She sometimes made money by charging people 25c for a tour of her home and the paintings she displayed there, or $1 for a photo with her. In the 1940s she was selling paintings for as little as a quarter, but by the time of her death her work was being sold to dealers for thousands of dollars. However, Hunter didn’t paint for the money, she painted because she loved it and would frequently give her paintings away.
Hunter became the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and even received an invitation to the White House from U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Her art has been displayed in Dallas Museum of Fine Art, the American Folk Art Museum, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, among many more. Hunter died in 1988 and is thought to have created around 5,000 to 10,000 pieces of art, despite having first picked up a paintbrush so late in life. She is remembered as an important social and cultural historian and as a pivotal figure in folk art.
You can watch a video of the restoration of Hunter's Africa House murals, here: