Wednesday, February 3, 2010


This is the second installment of a profile of Clementine Hunter, published in my book, THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL: PROFILES OF MEMORABLE LOUISIANA WOMEN, reprinted here for those charter members of the “Peasant Poet Society,” established Jan. 29.  The post followed a dinner table conversation among the charter members about this famous African-American artist. Clementine, of course, is deceased, but the interest in her personality and her colorful folk art has not diminished since she first began “making her mark” over a half century ago. 

“Clementine Hunter had been curious about the artists and writers who had been coming to Melrose Plantation near Natchitoches, Louisiana, from the time she was hired to be chief cook at the Big House on the old plantation during the early 1900’s. As a young girl she had stitched paper cutouts on cloth to make wall decorations, and later made quilts and created rag dolls. She was meticulous about her sewing and wanted everything she created to be perfect.

When Alberta Kinsey, an artist who visited Melrose Plantation often during the 1940’s, departed Melrose one day, leaving behind several of her brushes and a few tubes of oil paint, she did not envision that the nearly sixty-year old African-American woman would pick them up and begin a career as the African-American “Grandma Moses of the South.” Clementine found the art supplies. took them to another guest, art critic Francois Mignon, saying: “Mister Francois, I betcha’ I could mark a picture if I set my mind to it.” Mignon agreed with her and quickly tore a tattered linen window shade from the window, giving it to Clementine to “mark.” The following morning at 5 a.m., Clementine knocked at Mignon’s door and presented him with an oil painting of a plantation baptism scene – a queue of African-Americans dressed in white gowns who were being led to the river by African-American preachers grandly dressed in red robes. The execution of this painting was childlike, even crude, but colors were brilliantly blended, and a kind of intuitive good form overshadowed the artist’s lack of perspective. Mignon had discovered an artist who possessed “the inner vision which set her painting apart as a work of art,” as Edward Steichen, a famous photographer, later described Clementine’s work.

Clementine began to work on any blank scrap she could find on the plantation – cardboard box tops, wood scraps, wrapping paper, brown paper bags, and materials Mignon provided for her to “mark her pictures.” During the day she continued to work at the Big House as a cook, walking back and forth to the cabin on Melrose grounds where she lived with her husband Emanuel who was bedridden. At night after a few hours’ sleep, she would arise, light a kerosene lamp, and paint until sunrise. She often told her husband that as soon as she had lighted the lamp, “a whole lot of things start goin’ across my mind and before I know it, I’m getting’ ‘em down on paper.” The paintings that appeared were records of African-American plantation life which could not have been told as well in prose. She painted work scenes such as cotton picking, washing clothes, and threshing pecans, and more playful scenes such as watermelon-eating and fishing. After painting several hundred scenes, Clementine’s work began to improve remarkably in style.

Clementine painted cotton pickers working in the hot summer sun wearing big hats and walking in rows, one above the other, background figures looming larger than those in the foreground. Her portrayal of this scene came solely from her “inner vision.” “I just paint what comes to my head,” she said. “Don’t know one tell me what to paint. I can’t do that. And I don’t paint what everyone has already painted. I want to paint something like nobody has!” The cotton-picking scene was also an evocation of her past when, as a child, she picked 250 pounds of cotton a day alongside her father (who could pick 390 pounds).  Clementine said that she loved picking cotton better than anything she ever did; she even ran away from school to be allowed to work alongside her family in the fields. In her rendering of “Pecan Threshing,” Clementine painted her impressions of a cold winter morning when workers brought a small wood-burning stove into the groves. The painting shows an old woman cooking biscuits and coffee for the pickers, a child carrying coffee cups and a strange, make-believe bird Clementine called the “gooster,” a hybrid creature which is a cross between a goose and a rooster.

Perhaps one of her most famous paintings is “Saturday Night at the Honky Tonk,” which depicts the drinking, romancing fighting, and killing of the Saturday night drinking groups. The red honky-tonk is shown from the outside, and a window fan which fascinated Clementine dominates the scene. The painting records a series of events – lovemaking, murdering, and indifferent drinking take place all at once. Time telescopes in the painting. A bullet streaks toward a victim who has already fallen dead. Someone rushes to an old-fashioned telephone to call a doctor who has already started out on his call.

Mignon commissioned Clementine to paint murals on the walls of Ghana House on the grounds of Melrose. She quickly depicted an Ethiopian “Christ on the Cross,” at the base of which cotton is being brought in from surrounding fields. She began to paint other religious scenes believing that “the good Lord helped me make pictures – no person did it.” Her Nativity painting showed the manger in a Louisiana cotton field, across which African-American wise men travelled, bringing gifts of gourds and vegetables to an African-American Mary and a lively African-American baby Jesus. Angels with pointed heads swirl in the sky overhead. For Mignon, Clementine later painted a 4’x16’ mural in the African House, a Melrose outbuilding designed after houses found in the African Congo. The scenes, painted over a period of three years, depict day-to-day domestic life at Melrose – weddings, baptisms, funerals, church meetings, etc. When Melrose Plantation became a national landmark, Clementine’s mural became a permanent exhibit at the plantation.

According to records at the Roman Catholic Church in Cloutierville, Louisiana, Clementine Hunter was born in 1885, and records indicate that she was baptized in March of that year. She was the eldest of seven children born to John and Mary Antoinette Adams Ruben. Her paternal grandfather was an Irish horse trader married to a woman of Indian and African-American lineage named “Me-Me.” Her maternal grandmother, Idole Adams, was a slave who was brought to Louisiana from Virginia. As a member of a Creole family, Clementine was originally named Clemence and was called “Teba.” Her mother tongue was French, and she did not become fluent in English until her second marriage to Emanuel Hunter.  Her first marriage, at age sixteen, was to Charlie Dupree by whom she bore three children. After the death of Dupree, Clementine married Emanuel Hunter and had two more children. She was born at Hidden Hill Plantation, which Harriet Beecher Stowe had used as a setting for her famous novel, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. The plantation owner, Robert McAlpin, was the model for the cruel overseer in Stowe’s novel. Hidden Hill, now Little Eva Plantation, lies in the flat Cane River country near Natchitoches. Clementine later moved with her parents to Melrose Plantation, and her memory of the world seems to have begun with the cotton fields and pecan groves surrounding the plantation.

Clementine loved the cotton fields and despised school. “I just run off from those nuns at school every time they would send me. My mama kept sending me back. But all I wanted to do was pick cotton,” she once said. “I finally run away so many times my mama gave up and let me pick cotton.” Later, she compared painting with picking cotton. “Paintin,” she said, “is a lot harder than pickin’ cotton. Cotton’s right there for you to pull off the stalk, but to paint, you got to sweat yo’ mind.”

Eventually, Clementine was brought into the Big House as a part-time cook and maid. She was taught to cook elaborate cuisine by her grandmother. When asked the kind of meals she prepared for Miss Cammie Henry, mistress of Melrose Plantation, Clementine told her interviewers, “hard things. You know, peas, okra, and beans.” It was difficult for reporters to discern if she was talking “tongue in cheek,” or if at the age of almost 100, she had some notion that peas and beans are hard in consistency, rather than foods that are difficult to prepare. The cookbook, MELROSE PLANTATION COOKBOOK, which she illustrated for Francois Mignon, features some of Clementine’s gourmet recipes that are far more difficult to prepare than peas and beans – Game Soup, Piquante Sauce, Parsnip Fritter and Rice Blanc Mange.

Note: The third installment about Clementine Hunter will be published in a subsequent blog. Again, the photograph is by permission of B.A. Cohen for THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL. 
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